Diverse and fair

March 24, 2016

Birkbeck, University of London, is enormously proud of its efforts to offer harmonised pay and conditions for full- and part-time members of staff. Unfortunately, your story “Universities ‘most reliant’ on teaching-only staff named” (15 March) reported a misleading comparison of Higher Education Statistics Agency data made by the pressure group Fighting Against Casualisation in Education (Face).

Our model of face-to-face evening teaching is unique within the UK, and combines high quality with widening access. This model means that our staff profile differs from that of most other universities. Alongside our academic staff (83 per cent of whom were returned in the 2014 research excellence framework), we employ many part-time teaching staff, many of whom are highly educated practitioners, professionals and portfolio workers.

We offer harmonised pay and conditions for full- and part-time members of staff, including access to a pension scheme, paid family leave and maternity leave, entitlement to career breaks, paid holiday and sick pay, as well as ensuring that teaching and scholarship staff have dedicated representation, for example on our academic board.

It is clear that the table that your story drew on does not measure casualisation. Quite the opposite: harmonised contracts such as Birkbeck’s are particularly visible in Hesa data as they are returned as “typical”. The flawed methodology underlying the table means that the conclusions being presented are the exact opposite of the actual situation.

Face excluded some institutions from its table on the grounds that they had a distinctive teaching model, and Times Higher Education has followed its criteria. We remain puzzled as to what definition of “distinctive teaching model” applied to the Open University and a range of other institutions but not to Birkbeck. It may not make for good headlines, but the Hesa data ultimately show that specialist institutions with distinctive teaching models tend to have different sized and shaped workforces – an interesting but not unsurprising conclusion.

The pressures of accelerating policy change and “one size fits all” prescriptions constantly threaten to homogenise the sector. We should all be celebrating and defending diversity – all the more so when, as in this case, difference is demonstrably linked to excellence.

Matthew Innes
Birkbeck, University of London

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