Hourly paid tutors at the University of the Arts are raising a glass to improved pay and greater security. Humphrey Evans joins them.
Parker's Place, a London pub driven deep into office-block territory just around the corner from what used to be the Central School of Art in Southampton Row, is packed out tonight. Dozens of people have crammed into the back half of the place, heads close together as they raise their voices to make themselves heard over the noise. But this is neither some student thrash nor an office get-together. This is the official Associate Tutor Network Party thrown by the newly named University of the Arts London for the hourly paid part-timers who teach the commercially run short courses and professional training workshops that complement the university's core functions and contribute significantly to its income.
Here is a diverse gaggle of tutors: an interior designer saying how convenient her new office is, just around the corner from where she teaches; an architect saying that teaching has led him to begin writing a book; a photographer saying how meticulous she has to be in bringing home to the students the dangers of the chemicals they use in developing their prints, while another remarks that he can always bring to mind the work that his students have done but has difficulty remembering their names.
And here, too, is Steve Whalley, party organiser and business manager of the short course unit at Central St Martins College of Art and Design, one of the five institutions that makes up the university. (The others are the London College of Communication, Camberwell College of Arts, Chelsea College of Art and Design and the London College of Fashion.) "This party is our way of saying thank you to the tutors," he says, "Of showing that we appreciate them."
Whalley describes a mix of teachers, some of whom have only recently graduated, some with well-established careers but who enjoy the interaction with students, some, perhaps, whose earnings as artists or self-employed freelances fluctuate and who enjoy the feeling of the safety net of something more regular.
A typical tutor on a single course might be doing two or three hours a week, but many will be handling two or three courses, and some may, over quite lengthy periods, be seen as virtually full-time staff.
"We're on very good terms with our short-course tutors," Whalley says, before explaining that this is the first time they have run such a party for all of them across the entire university. Perhaps a party seems a small gesture, but it ties in with other initiatives that the university is undertaking to improve its relationships with hourly paid and part-time staff.
Sir Michael Bichard, rector of the university, says that when he arrived in the job, one of the tasks he set himself was to talk to various key groups, among them hourly paid tutors, and he concluded that this latter group hadn't been sufficiently involved.
"I picked up that they were committed and passionate about their jobs, their subjects and their students," says Sir Michael, "but that they didn't feel included and valued, or serviced and supported."
At the same time, lecturers' union Natfhe, represented by its University of the Arts secretary Ron Todd, was pressing for a better deal for hourly paid tutors. He estimates that he has been putting more than 50 per cent of his efforts into work on their behalf.
What everybody agrees on is exactly how essential these teachers are to the wellbeing of the university.
A headcount reveals some 2,000 people working on this basis, more than at any other university in the UK, and while most may be putting in the equivalent of a day or less a week, some are doing much more, and a few are in effect doing full-time jobs. By comparison, the university employs between 400 and 500 salaried academic staff.
A review of the conditions of employment for the hourly paid tutors carried out by the university's human resources department has involved open forums for these tutors chaired by Sir Michael, discussions with academic managers and administrators, meetings with Natfhe representatives and a look at what other universities are doing. The result has been a series of changes that have begun to feed through to practice.
One immediate shift, taking effect from the beginning of this academic year, is a change of the title used to describe the bulk of hourly paid teaching staff. For example, the remote-sounding "visiting tutor" is being replaced by the more inclusive "associate lecturer".
More important, the university has addressed the situation of those associate lecturers who put in a lot of hours and who often take on significant management roles as course directors, year tutors, work placement tutors and the like.
In agreement with Natfhe, a number of these - 30 so far - have been moved from hourly paid contracts to fractional salary status with the benefits that this offers in terms of settled employment (and rates of pay). Some hourly paid workers are already categorised as "visiting researchers" and are contributing to time-limited and specific research, and for these, too, the university is looking at the possibility of fractional salary status.
Another shift is that the university plans to offer hourly paid associate lecturers sessional rather than termly contracts, making short-term planning more certain.
Also, it has entered into a workplace agreement, dating from August 1, on security of employment for associate lecturers. Where an associate lecturer has more than two years' service and in any year undertakes more than 120 core hours in total - roughly equivalent to one day a week over the teaching year - then, subject to the work continuing to exist, they are guaranteed a minimum of 75 per cent of that total in the following year, making longer-term planning that bit easier. The 120 hours a year also become the threshold for improved sick pay and maternity pay. These agreements pre-empt the legally mandated changes due to take effect in July 2006, in which fixed-term contracts may, under certain circumstances, confer permanent status.
Rates of pay, too, have changed, going up by just over3 per cent to Pounds 29.64 or £34.28 an hour, including London weighting and holiday allowance, depending on which of the two academic grades covering associate lecturers apply. The university intends to move to one rate for associate lecturers, enhanced for those who have obtained teacher accreditation or recognition for excellence in learning and teaching. This rate is offered on the assumption that an hour's paid teaching entails about an hour-and-a-half's preparation or marking.
To attract new associate lecturers, the university is moving away from its previous word-of-mouth recruitment, advertising over the summer for people to submit CVs in an expression of interest. Anyone who would like to work in this way can find out more on the university website, under recruitment at www.arts. ac.uk/jobs.
New associate lecturers will have to undergo a one-year probationary period, but they will be offered a one-day preparing-to-teach course. Those contracted for more than 360 hours a year will be required to attend a PGCert (higher education) or GradCert (further education) programme.
In an additional tiny but welcome change, the monthly pay slip is being rejigged to make it easier for associate lecturers to identify exactly what each payment covers.
One person who firmly feels she has benefited from these developments is Daphne Plessner, a lecturer in book arts - a branch of the fine arts - who has gone from being an hourly paid visiting tutor to having a fractional salaried post.
"I was a visiting tutor for a considerable period of time," she says. "I was making a serious contribution." But she then describes the uncertainties of scratching around for hours at the beginning of each year and the vulnerabilities of not being able to access loans because you can't guarantee what your financial life will be like. Now, as a senior lecturer in a 0.5 fractional salaried post she is carrying out much the same duties but within a more supportive framework.
And that, going back to Sir Michael, has been one of the main aims of the project. "We have been trying to put together a package of changes that can be seen to make our associate lecturers more effective, more valued, more part of the place," he says.