Leader: Missing jam for doughnut-style university world

April 27, 2001

Abolishing tenure was supposed to make British universities more likely to give people permanent jobs because it would be easier to make staff redundant in hard times. It did not work out that way. Casualisation has increased by leaps and bounds, even though universities can axe courses, close departments and declare redundancies. Higher education is now second only to catering in the proportion of non-permanent staff employed.

The non-aggressive nature of higher education management is in part responsible: no one likes declaring redundancies and union opposition ensures bad publicity for institutions that do. A pool of casual staff provides an easy way out when funding is uncertain. And uncertain it is. Higher education has grown and changed remarkably over the past 20 years. Core funding is more closely earmarked and tied to numbers (at least for the time being). The volume of research has grown enormously, mostly on soft money from research councils and commercial sponsors. Senior academics have become managers of research, chasing contracts and deploying large numbers of short-term staff. To maximise their effectiveness and cope with larger numbers of students, part-time, short-term and casual staff, some of whom are also researchers, are used to spread the teaching load. Universities have gone from being one of the most secure sources of employment to the doughnut model, beloved of business schools, where a core of permanent staff manage a wide ring of transients.

The trouble is not so much the doughnut as the jam. Portfolio life can be acceptable if it is well rewarded and people are fairly treated. But higher education expansion has been built on exploitation: of dedicated long-term staff; of clever young people eager to do research; of well-qualified people, usually women, wanting part-time work. For a time it worked, but now publicly funded universities are losing their unique position. They are becoming unattractive employers in a market where the skills they seek are also sought by competitors who offer better terms.

Attempts to address these issues are becoming increasingly bad tempered. The measly amount of money provided by the government for pay is too little to do what is urgently required, namely to provide more generous across-the-board pay settlements, to build in scope to pay at least some high-fliers competitive salaries and to iron out the indefensible gender discrimination identified by the Bett report. It should not be a case of one or the other. In such a climate, the eagerness of people with ideas they can exploit, demonstrated by the response to Natural Environment Research Council's business competition, is unsurprising.

Short commons are driving academics to market, helping realise government policies for greater entrepreneurial activity. This may be inevitable, even desirable, but it raises issues over conflicts of interest that must be addressed - a key part of the doughnut model of management. If public suspicion of research is not to tip from healthy scepticism to irrational hostility, clear rules of engagement and especially openness are required. It is vital that researchers declare their interests; that journal editors insist this is done; that funders resist the temptation to meddle; and that universities protect their staff and are prepared to walk away from donors and sponsors who seek inappropriate controls. Stephen Phillips's article (page 18) shows how far we fall short of such practice.

Commercial and, indeed, personal, political, social and religious interests will always influence the topics that are researched and the questions that are asked. Where rules are needed, it is to guard against contamination of the answers.

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