Sudden shift to teaching-only contracts ahead of REF census

Latest data show about a quarter of universities now have a fifth of full-time academics classed as teaching only

March 18, 2020
Source: Alamy

UK universities have reclassified hundreds of academics as being on teaching-only contracts as the census date for the research excellence framework approaches.

Two institutions saw a sevenfold increase in the year to 2018-19 in the number of full-time staff officially classified as not having research duties, according to the latest data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency.

Overall, the data show that at about a quarter of universities, a fifth of full-time academic staff are now described as teaching only, almost double the proportion compared with four years earlier.

One of the major changes for REF 2021 is that all research-active staff must be submitted, a rule introduced after some institutions were criticised for “game-playing” in the last REF by entering only a portion of their researchers.

However, ever since the new rule was first proposed, in the 2016 review of the REF chaired by Lord Stern, concerns have been raised that staff perceived as underperforming on research would be moved to teaching contracts.

The share of academics classed as teaching only has been rising steadily since the Stern review published its report. Across the sector, 31 per cent of all academic staff were recorded as being teaching only last year, a figure that was 26 per cent in 2014-15.

Almost a dozen institutions have seen a shift of at least 25 percentage points in the share of full-time staff who are teaching only over that period, with some of those registering the biggest changes in 2018-19. The census date for staff numbers to inform the REF will come at the end of this academic year.

The biggest shifters in 2018-19 included Nottingham Trent University, which went from 135 full-time academics classed as teaching only in 2017-18 to 945 last year (63 per cent of full-time academic staff), according to the Hesa data, a sevenfold increase.

London Metropolitan University also had an increase of about 600 per cent, although from a lower base: 30 academics were classed as teaching only in 2017-18, a figure that climbed to 230 last year (82 per cent of all full-time academics). Only 30 staff were recorded as having a research-active role at London Met in 2018-19.

A spokesman for the university said its new strategic plan had led to “an examination of all of our data and working practices, ensuring that staff had appropriate workloads”. The strategy would mean research-active staff numbers growing from now on and likely doubling next year, he added.

Nottingham Trent said the Hesa data “do not reflect a change in colleagues’ contracts, which have remained the same”, but were the result of the implementation of new “academic career pathways”.

“The Hesa teaching figure for 2018-19 includes colleagues from the newly created teaching and scholarship and teaching and practice career pathways, accounting for the increase in this data from 2017-18,” a spokesman said.

Although most of the institutions registering large shifts towards teaching-only staff were post-92 universities, some pre-92 universities also witnessed big changes.

One of these was the University of Hull, where the share of full-time staff classed as teaching only went up 15 percentage points from 2017-18 to 2018-19, to 42 per cent. In 2014-15, just 14 per cent of full-time academics were classed as teaching only at the institution.

A Hull spokeswoman said the increase “forms part of the university’s continued commitment to provide students with the best possible teaching experience” and also followed the development of a new career framework for academics.

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