Academics are expected to take lectures in subjects in which they have little or no knowledge, as customer-led culture prevails. Phil Baty reports
"I have sometimes gone into seminars crossing my fingers, hoping that the students have prepared a good presentation, because I know sod all myself,"
said Abigail Smith, a lecturer in media at a northern university, who asked The Times Higher not to use her real name.
Another colleague, she said, was appointed to her first university lecturing job teaching a degree course in a field she had only touched on in her first degree, several years earlier.
"She was plunged into a full teaching schedule plus a huge amount of administration due to staff shortages. She was frequently preparing classes only hours in advance on subjects she had never considered before."
Such stories abound in a higher education sector that has seen explosive growth in student numbers and in the number of degree courses on offer, not matched by rising staffing levels.
For many, including Dr Smith, an adrenalin-fuelled, seat-of-the-pants culture of blagging - and getting away with it - in front of a lecture group has become part and parcel of the job, if something of a dirty secret.
While students might be horrified by such tales and how common they are, only rarely has the use of underqualified or inexperienced teaching staff been picked up as a quality assurance issue.
In 2005, the Quality Assurance Agency criticised London South Bank University for relying too heavily on casual staff who were less likely to be fully up to speed with the subject areas they were expected to teach. It said that hourly paid staff taught up to 40 per cent of one course.
In an audit of Coventry University's foundation degree in motorsport engineering, delivered through Warwickshire College, the QAA found that out of ten teaching staff "only five have degree-level qualifications. Only one is a member of a professional body".
Evidence is now emerging of additional pressures on staff to teach in areas where they are not comfortable. This appears to be driven by the need, in an era of top-up fees, to be seen to be providing as much "face-to-face"
contact between lecturers and students as possible.
As Ruth Farwell, director of Buckinghamshire Chilterns University College, explained to her staff last month: "Our activities are characterised by 'putting students first'. In pursuit of this and wherever possible, we will endeavour not to cancel students' face-to-face contact sessions with staff.
"Therefore, where a member of staff is unable to undertake some face-to-face sessions because of illness, for example, we will endeavour to provide cover."
She cited the academics' contracts, which, she said, "characteristically include an item along the lines of 'any other duties reasonably required by the line manager'. The university college considered it reasonable to expect colleagues to provide cover for other colleagues who are absent due to sickness."
Dr Farwell listed the circumstances in which cover should be provided, which included when the request is to provide cover in a module at level 1 (first year) in any course and "where the module is within the individual's broad subject area".
The director's memo prompted an almost immediate response from the BUCU branch of the University and College Union.
Its chair, Stephen Soskin, this week declined to comment, as he hopes to reach an amicable settlement to resolve the problem in talks later this month. But he wrote an open letter to the director just days after her memo.
"We have always made it clear that we have no objection to voluntary arrangements for cover where this is arranged between colleagues themselves in the same discipline or where the member of academic staff is happy to be of assistance," he said.
"The statement from the director goes well beyond this and effectively states that staff will be forced to undertake cover, whether or not they professionally feel able to do this. UCU will not accept this."
The statement went on to argue that just because two members of staff taught within the same discipline they would not necessarily both be familiar with every module on a course and it was therefore unreasonable to ask them to enter a classroom to teach in an area that was outside their competence. It said it should be the academic who decided whether or not to provide cover.
He said that the institution should ensure adequate cover, including a register of hourly paid lecturer specialists to call upon in an emergency.
Sally Hunt, general secretary of the UCU, said: "Absence cover is an issue for members of staff to resolve between themselves. Staff should certainly not be forced into covering modules that they are not comfortable with."
Gemma Tumelty, president of the National Union of Students, said she doubted that students would "fall for such a hollow attempt to placate them in their demands".