Some UK universities saw teaching contract jump as REF loomed

In year before REF census, at a handful of institutions more than two-thirds of staff were reclassified 

April 26, 2021
Filmmaker D. W. Griffith reviews the contract of Mary Pickford, accompanied by (l-r) her husband, Douglas Fairbanks, and Charlie Chaplin, and their two attorneys. Illustrating jump in teaching contracts under REF
Source: Getty

Several UK universities reported a big jump in the proportion of academics classified as “teaching-only” in the run-up to the research excellence framework census date, new figures show.

At two institutions, more than two-thirds of full-time staff appear to have been reclassified from being on “teaching and research” contracts to become teaching-only in 2019-20.

The share of academics on teaching-only contracts has been rising consistently since around 2016, when a review of the REF recommended that the current exercise should require all research-active staff to submit work.

As a result, all those with “significant responsibility for research” on 31 July last year had to submit at least one research output, with figures out this month showing this had led to a 46 per cent increase in academic participation.

However, there have also been concerns that the rule change may have prompted some universities to change the contractual status of staff they did not want to submit to the exercise.

According to the latest data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, about a third of institutions in the UK now have at least a fifth of their full-time academic workforce on teaching-only terms, about double the number of universities in 2015-16.

Those seeing the biggest shifts over the period have mainly been teaching-focused universities.

At the University of Suffolk, about 100 people, about two-thirds of all full-time academics, were reclassified as teaching only in the year before the census date, with the institution confirming that this was related to the REF.

Another university with a big shift in 2019-20 was the University of Northampton, where 96 per cent of academics were classed as “teaching and research” in 2018-19, a figure that plummeted to 30 per cent last year. The share on teaching-only contracts rose from 2 per cent to 67 per cent.

A Northampton spokesman said that it had held an institution-wide review into contracts in time for 2019-20 that was “part of a wider strategy to better reflect, resource and reward different, but equally valuable, contributions at the university”.

Other universities saw a smaller change last year, but one that amounted to a big shift since 2015-16. At Staffordshire University, four out of five full-time academics are now on teaching-only contracts.

A spokeswoman said that the institution “has been focusing on career pathways” in response to a staff survey and this had involved reviewing contractual requirements for academic staff.

Shifts in contract arrangements among most research-intensive universities have been less dramatic.

The highest percentage point increase from 2018-19 to 2019-20 was at Keele University, where roughly a quarter of full-time academics are now classed as teaching-only, up from 19 per cent the year before.  

Deputy vice-chancellor Mark Ormerod said that this was not related to the REF and was due to a “large number of substantive teaching fellows” applying to become lecturers on an “education and scholarship” career track.

New employees may have made up many of the additional teaching-only contracts at some institutions.

At Newcastle University, the share of teaching-only contracts for full-time academics rose 4 percentage points to 19 per cent in the year to 2019-20, a share that is also almost 10 percentage points higher than 2015-16.

However, a spokesman said this was not related “in any way” to the REF and “reflects shifts in the balance of teaching and research income and investment in people to support those shifts”.

“Between 2018-19 and 2019-20, the overall number of colleagues has grown and within that total, the number across the research-only and teaching and research categories has remained stable,” he said.


Print headline: REF sparks status updates

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