A new review into efficiencies in higher education is to examine whether more academics could be employed on nine-month contracts.
Sir Ian Diamond, principal and vice-chancellor of the University of Aberdeen and leader of the Universities UK study, told an audience in London that he wanted to see if shaking up long-standing academic practices could lead to more savings for the sector.
Speaking at the third annual Efficiency in Higher Education conference on March, Sir Ian said that he wanted his task forces on university personnel and academic processes to think about radical changes.
Questions to be asked included “when do we teach, how much do we teach and how long is the academic year”, Sir Ian said.
“We need to think about the need for teaching-only [contracts], what they mean and what [they] deliver,” he continued.
What is likely to prove most controversial, however, is Sir Ian’s belief that “there are areas where we need to think about nine-month contracts”.
Under the deals, staff in effect are not remunerated over the summer. Such arrangements are commonplace in the US, where academics must either take on summer teaching or gain faculty grants to pursue their research, although many have complained that the contracts lead to financial hardship.
Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, said that the union would have “grave concerns” about any move towards such contracts.
“High-quality teaching comes when staff feel secure and valued, and these proposals would achieve neither – while actually worsening our sector’s already appalling record for the exploitation of casualised staff,” she said.
According to Sir Ian, the latest drive to deliver more efficiencies was necessary because universities had to “fight the perception” in Whitehall of being “awash with cash” – a view apparently voiced by some policymakers within the Treasury.
The latest review follows a report published in September 2011 that identified ways that universities could streamline services and cut costs, particularly in non-pay areas.
It also highlighted efficiency savings worth about £1.8 billion that universities had made between 2005-06 and 2011-12. Sir Ian stated that further efficiencies had been made last year as well.
Sir Ian said that he hoped to publish his latest review in February 2015, “just before the election”, as part of a strategy to hammer home the message that universities were serious about finding efficiencies.
The latest review will examine areas of university spend not covered by the first UUK report. It will take in personnel, the use of university estates and the use of open data reporting to gain better value for money in contracts.
Meanwhile, Sir Ian also said that record surpluses seen by universities since £9,000 tuition fees were introduced were essential to finance long-term borrowing to make possible huge improvements to university estates. “These are not real surpluses – this is what is needed to finance loans we are taking out,” he said.