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Almost half of UK academics believe that their workload has risen as tuition fees have increased, a Times Higher Education survey suggests.
As part of the 2015 Best University Workplace Survey, we asked more than 4,000 university employees whether the introduction of higher fees had led to an increase in the demands of their job, and more than a third (34 per cent) say that it has.
Among academics only (a total of 1,939 respondents), that figure increases to 46 per cent, with one in five saying that they “strongly agree” with the statement: “since the introduction of higher tuition fees, my workload has increased”. Just one in five says they disagree.
Among the 2,235 respondents identifying as “professional and support workers”, 24 per cent said that workloads had risen with fees, with a similar number (27 per cent) disagreeing. More than 5,750 comments about life in the UK university sector were made by respondents to the 2015 survey, with some offering insight into how the rising cost of higher education for students had impacted on their day-to-day work.
One senior lecturer at a Russell Group institution in southern England said that scholars had “to work harder on improving the student experience, in particular since the £9,000 tuition fees hike”, meaning that there was “never enough time to do research, even when working evenings and weekends”.
“This is not specific to my university, but a problem of the UK university sector as a whole,” they wrote.
Another lecturer, at a research-intensive university in the North of England, said that lecture group sizes at their institution “have reached an unmanageable level”, and “have increased substantially since the introduction of fees and the reduction of the cap [on student numbers]”.
‘Corporate South’ v ‘creative North’
One respondent, a member of professional and support staff identifying as a “manager” at a Russell Group institution in England, had previously worked in Scotland where tuition is free for domestic students.
“I think the impact of tuition fees is apparent,” they said. “The environment down south is much more managerialist and bureaucratic than in Scotland. It feels very corporate – not the sort of environment that fosters creative, innovative research and teaching.
“I am not against tuition fees,” they continue, “but they have been introduced thoughtlessly and universities like my own have been too quick to recast students as consumers.”
Yiannis Gabriel, chair in organisation studies at the University of Bath School of Management, who helped to develop the survey, said that it was “beyond doubt” that the introduction of tuition fees had “increased…universities’ obsession with their brand”.
Resentment and rose-tinted glasses
One result of this was that there was pressure on students to gain higher marks to increase feedback scores. “Spoonfeeding [students] becomes endemic, including, increasingly, coaching students for answering examination questions and even indicating the types of questions which they can expect in their examinations,” Gabriel said.
“The levels of anxiety, stress and discontent that I observe among colleagues around the corridors of my institution are matched by an alarming tendency to blame and resent the students for the malaise that afflicts the sector. Student fees and the conversion of students into consumers must surely be one of the factors that accounts for this.”
Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute, said that the THE data supported research his thinktank had produced about how institutions have responded to recent changes. “To coin a phrase, they are often delivering more for less,” he said.
“We should also be wary of thinking the past is rosier than it was,” he continued. “But there are nonetheless some important warning signs here. For example, if students and lecturers are facing larger class sizes since the higher fees came in, they should be asking some tough questions as to where all those £9,000 fees are going.”
Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, said that staff often “go that extra mile” because they are dedicated to their students, and that universities should not expect to continue to “exploit academics’ goodwill”.
The Universities and Colleges Employers Association referenced the overall results of the 2015 Best University Workplace Survey, saying that a “significant majority” of staff believe that their institution offers a fair deal in terms of conditions, benefits and remuneration.