Don't neglect the backbone

September 24, 1999


Any employment structure for academic-related staff should enable their careers to flourish, says Stephen Court.

Academic-related staff are the unassuming backstage professionals of university life. They keep computer systems running, help students use libraries and IT-based learning, maintain the estates, juggle the finances,do the donkey work for admissions, research assessment and quality assurance and a host of other tasks that keep higher education going.

Two events this year have turned the spotlight on them. First there was the Bett report, which provided the first accurate data on the numbers and employment conditions of academic-related staff and made controversial recommendations about their future status. Then there was the establishment of the Institute for Learning and Teaching in higher education. From this month, academic and academic-related staff with experience in teaching and the support of learning will be able to apply for membership of the ILT.

The Bett report unearthed 20,000 academic-related staff in the pre-1992 universities. There were 45,000 other administrative, professional, technical and clerical staff in the post-1992 and Scottish conference institutions, about one-third of whom carry out work similar to that of old university academic-related staff. In all, academic-related staff make up more than 10 per cent of employees in higher education, while 45 per cent are teaching and research staff.

Bett proposed a national framework for determining the pay and conditions of staff in higher education, with separate pay spines for academic and non academic staff. The trouble is, how do you decide which staff are placed on which spine?

At the moment, in the pre-1992 institutions, academic and related staff are on linked pay spines. This underlines the belief that the work of academic and related staff is bound together in a professional partnership in the provision of higher education. Bett recommended that the academic spine be limited to teachers, researchers and others whose primary function is to contribute directly to student learning. There should be "benchmarking" based on job evaluation to link the pay of those at the top of the non-academic spine with those on the academic spine.

If Bett's recommendation on the pay spines is implemented, it will mean a double fracture of the professional team responsible for delivering higher education. What we will get is academic-related staff separated in employment terms from academic staff, and senior related staff separated from junior colleagues. The approach based on partnership and teamwork will be undermined, and the promotion of academic-related staff from the lower training grades will be hamstrung by job evaluation.

The Bett report suggested other criteria for separating academic from the non academic staff, such as whether staff are normally recruited in a national or local market and their eligibility for membership of the ILT.

Here, too, there are problems. Most academic-related posts are recruited from a national job market. And the more inclusive approach towards membership adopted this summer by the ILT will make a large number of related employees, especially computer and library staff, eligible to apply. The professional world of higher education envisaged by Dearing and supported by the ILT - with a growing involvement of related staff in teaching and learning and the erosion of historic staff categories and pay structures and distinctions between academic and support staff - could, ironically, be stymied by the employment review that Dearing recommended.

The hope is that post-Bett negotiations over employment in higher education will produce a system that enables flexible professional career patterns and flexible teams of staff engaged in supporting teaching and learning to flourish - not to wither because of artificial divisions.

Stephen Court is senior research officer, Association of University Teachers.

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