Career prospects need unblocking

July 10, 1998

If you are on the staff of a university, how good are your career prospects? According to the Dearing report, they are pretty healthy. The number of senior academic jobs is on the increase. Career opportunities for academic-related staff are widening. And while pay rises have been modest, this has been largely offset by an upwards drift in job grades.

But there is another side to the story. Opportunity Blocks, a study by the Association of University Teachers of appointment and promotion for academic and related staff, unearthed a number of uncomfortable findings: career prospects are worse than in the early 1960s; women's prospects are worse than men's; there is evidence that an agreement made by university employers on promotion is being ignored; and the emphasis on research achievement in career development has gone too far.

Dearing correctly says that 46 per cent of academic posts in the pre-1992 universities are either senior lecturers or professors. This compares well with the quota introduced in 1972 that not more than 40 per cent of full-time teaching-and-research academic staff should be senior. Since the abolition of the quota in 1987, the proportion of senior staff has gradually drifted upwards.

Higher Education Statistics Agency data shows that only 20 per cent of academics in the 1992 universities are senior. Given that almost half the university staff whose job includes teaching and research (as opposed to research only) are in the 1992 universities, this means that a large number of academics miss out on prospects.

When figures for all academic staff, including full-time research staff, in the old and new sectors are added together, only 24 per cent (or one in four) are on senior grades. Of part-time staff, only 12 per cent are on senior grades.

For academics and researchers the situation is worse than in the early 1960s. Then, there was no restriction on the numbers of professors, and the number of readers, senior lecturers and researchers was not to exceed 22 per cent of non-professorial staff. However, in 1995-96 the proportion of non-professorial senior staff was 17 per cent.

While it is possible to monitor career opportunities for academic and research staff through HESA data, no such data is collected for academic-related staff. It is not possible to test the claim in the Dearing report that opportunities for librarians, computer staff and administrators are "widening".

Other factors skew and limit career opportunities. The consensus in the AUT's survey was that too much emphasis was now placed on research achievement.

For academic and related staff in the pre-1992 universities, the principles for determining promotion were agreed between the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals and the AUT in 1987. One principle was that movement from lecturer A to lecturer B should not be competitive, but a quarter of respondents said they had to make a positive case for promotion to lecturer B. For academic-related staff, movement from grade 1 to grade 2 is not meant to be competitive, but a quarter of respondents said they had to make a positive case.

The agreement also says that, for promotion to senior lecturer, teaching, research and management were of equal importance. But the overwhelming majority of respondents said promotion to senior lecturer depended mainly on achievement in research.

The Dearing report recommended a thorough review and updating of employment policies. It will need to look at fairness for academic and related staff in the promotion prospects of women, part-time staff, staff in the 1992 universities, and staff on fixed-term contracts. And a review of the predominance of research is more important now than ever before.

Stephen Court is deputy senior research officer at the Association of University Teachers.

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