Anger at sick cover policy

May 4, 2007

Lecturers claim their professional reputations are at risk after being forced to teach subjects outside their specialist areas. Phil Baty reports

Academics are being forced to teach students who may know more about the subject than they do, it was claimed this week.

Staff at Buckinghamshire Chilterns University College said this week that they were being forced to "go unprepared" into the classroom to teach subjects outside their specialisms under a new plan to "put the students first" and prevent lectures being cancelled due to staff sickness and leave.

They complained that the initiative put their professional image and personal reputation at risk as well as unfairly increasing their workload.

The issue has the potential to develop into a national problem as resources fail to keep pace with expanding students numbers, the increasing number of degree courses on offer and growing student expectations.

Fears that UK higher education is falling behind on the global stage were further fuelled by the publication this week of figures showing a rise in the ratio of students to staff in UK universities. The ratio is now nearly 17:1, which is well above the 15:1 average of Britain's international rivals.

Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, said:

"Is it really in an institution's interest to have a lecturer with little understanding of a specialised subject taking a class? As well as the obvious quality issues, this sends a message to staff and students that essentially says getting the job done is more important than its being done properly."

On the student-to-staff ratios, Ms Hunt said: "It is unacceptable that the UK, the fourth largest economy in the world, is falling behind competitors when it comes to the number of students to each member of teaching staff in our universities."

Gemma Tumelty, president of the National Union of Students, said that although the drive to give students value for money was a "thrust in the right direction" the "tick-box approaches" to the issue were simply "not good enough".

"It is unfair on teachers who are already under significant pressures to balance research and teaching time; it is unfair on students who assume they are receiving quality teaching," she said.

The BCUC initiative obliges staff to cover for absent colleagues at short notice as long as they are in the same "broad subject area". They do not need to be subject specialists in the relevant area and may know very little about the module they are expected to teach.

Sources said that the issue was a particular problem because the university college had recently reorganised into faculties, which had brought together subject areas that previously had been quite distinct.

For example, nursing has joined psychology and criminology under the society and health faculty, and these subjects might now be considered to be in the same broad area.

One angry staff member said: "Academics are (being treated as) interchangeable clones who can teach any subject, irrelevant as to whether it is their specialist area or not."

The local branch of the UCU carried a motion last month that said: "We oppose any attempt to impose staff sickness cover where this is... forced upon members who are not specialists in that specific module to be taught."

The branch is advising members to refuse to take on any teaching cover that they feel is beyond their area of expertise or would compromise their professional credibility.

In a letter to Ruth Farwell, BCUC director, UCU branch chair Stephen Soskin says: "It would clearly be unreasonable to expect (lecturers) to go unprepared into a classroom... it must always be the lecturer who decides whether the work is in their immediate competence."

He adds that there was a problem with "students knowing more about the subject than the lecturer".

Dr Farwell said: "BCUC prides itself on the quality of teaching and excellent support offered to its students." She institution, she explained, endeavoured to put its students first and was reluctant to cancel their face-to-face sessions with staff. To fulfil its obligations to students it attempted to provide cover wherever possible.

She added that the BCUC was in talks with the union branch about the issue.

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