Academics perpetuate 'class divide', say secretarial staff

Survey of sector's clerical employees highlights low pay and lack of respect, writes Melanie Newman

July 10, 2008

There is a class divide between clerical staff and academics in higher education, according to most of the sector's secretaries.

Of 734 secretarial and clerical staff who were questioned by Keele University researchers, fewer than half (46.8 per cent) said that academics afforded them the same respect as they showed other academics.

Jon Richards, head of higher education staff for the public sector union Unison, which paid for the study, said that perceptions of higher education support staff by their peers were often "outmoded".

"Clerical and secretarial staff in higher education are better qualified staff than in any other sector," he said.

The research indicated that the average secretary in higher education was white, British, aged over 41 and worked full time. More than a third of respondents were educated to degree level, 9.7 per cent held masters degrees and 1.3 per cent had PhDs.

Just over half of those surveyed took home pay of between £14,000 and £22,000, with 14.5 per cent reporting salaries lower than £14,000. Most said their pay levels were lower than they should be and suggested this was due to a tradition of low pay for clerical work and because low pay is endemic in sectors with a predominantly female workforce.

Others blamed universities giving priority to academic staff; a perception of clerical work as being menial and low skilled; the failure of management to understand the complexity and responsibility that many clerical jobs involve; and a lack of recognition of clerical staff's qualifications and experience.

Many reported dissatisfaction about their levels of annual leave, which tended to be lower - up to 16 days less - than the entitlement for academic and academic-related staff.

Flexible working was also a matter of concern for some. Even where an institution had a flexible hours policy, some staff reported that "the line manager doesn't believe in it so we have to work set hours".

Although some clerical staff were expected to work additional hours during busy periods, they were also required to maintain "regular and precise hours throughout the day". This feedback suggests that at some higher education institutions, "flexible working" is used to advantage the employer only, according to the survey's authors.

Others reported anomalies between the maternity and sick-pay provision for academic staff and that given to support staff, and the operation of two pension schemes, with the one for clerical staff being considerably less advantageous.

Mr Richards said that while most employers had extended academic terms and conditions to administrative staff at higher levels, this was often not the case for lower-grade clerical employees.

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