Select Committee on Education and Employment Sixth Report



  50. The availability of continuing, consistent and caring academic and personal advice from lecturers and tutors can help determine whether a student continues or terminates his or her studies. Such support is often cited as one of the strengths of the collegiate system at Oxford and Cambridge and some other universities. Access to such advice is influenced by the basis on which academic staff in universities and colleges are employed. It is therefore a matter of concern that in the Independent Review of Higher Education Pay and Conditions, the committee chaired by Sir Michael Bett, Pro Chancellor of Aston University, it was noted that an unduly large proportion of some staff groups were on short-term contracts (especially researchers) or casually employed (particularly lecturers in post-1992 universities).[103] The Bett Committee recommended that there was scope for many higher education institutions to reduce their use of fixed-term and casual employment.[104] NATFHE told the Sub-committee that in the post-92 universities, 44 per cent of academic staff were part-time and 37 per cent were employed on an hourly-paid casual basis.[105] In its submission to the Sub-committee the Association of University Teachers stated that it did not believe that the quality of teaching was necessarily of a lower standard when conducted by part-time or casual staff, but that on courses which relied on large numbers of hourly-paid staff it became more difficult to deal with student queries and problems.[106]

51. The National Union of Students argued that these changes affected the quality of students' experience of higher education. It said that the role of academic staff as "informal intermediaries" between students and academic structures was being eroded, and the casualisation of academic staff had led to fewer avenues of advice and support for students.[107]

52. The Bett Committee recommended greater investment in training and development opportunities for part-time staff and those on fixed-term contracts.[108] In a survey of part-time lecturers in three institutions, NATFHE found that 43 per cent of respondents had learned about higher education teaching on the job with informal advice from colleagues or without any support.[109] The AUT argued that pressure on time meant that lecturers found it difficult to pursue their own professional development, for example, learning how to use new IT-based teaching systems.[110]

53. We recommend that HEFCE should, as a matter of urgency, audit the impact of casualisation of higher education staff contracts on the support and pastoral care of students, particularly those from a non-traditional background and part-time or mature students. If this audit highlights structural weaknesses in the support systems for students because of changes in patterns of staff employment, we recommend that higher education institutions should ensure that staff who are not on casual contracts, and who have sufficient time for student support activities, are responsible for support and pastoral care for students. We also recommend that HEFCE should investigate further the reasons why higher education institutions are employing more part­time and fixed­term staff, and in the course of doing so propose ways of tackling the underlying problems.


  54. The Sub-committee heard from a number of witnesses about the increase in pressure on academic staff. This arose from declining staff:student ratios, a stronger requirement by institutions for staff to maintain an active research profile, a comparative lack of reward for developing excellence in teaching, difficulty in recruiting young academics in certain disciplines and increased effort required for internal and external quality audits.

55. NATFHE wrote of the pressure on staff in institutions with an active commitment to widening participation because of tension between teaching and research activities.[111] Professor Diana Green noted that both academic rank and the rewards for high quality work were, in many universities, geared primarily to research. She said that, despite this, there was evidence that many universities were taking teaching and learning more seriously, not least because of the activities of the Quality Assurance Agency and the expectations of their students.[112] Professor Green agreed that the balance of priorities between teaching and research should be re-evaluated by HEFCE.[113] Dr Roger Brown, Principal of Southampton Institute, said in his April 2000 evidence to the Sub-committee that there was great deal of evidence that, in many institutions, teaching and similar activities did not have the same status or rewards as research.[114]

56. NATFE told the Sub-committee that the quality and nature of academic and pastoral support that students receive were fundamental to student retention.[115] The AUT argued that increasing demands on lecturers' time from other areas, for example the Research Assessment Exercise, meant that staff had less time to offer support to students who had personal or academic problems.[116] This was a particular concern for students from non-traditional backgrounds who were likely to require greater support and guidance.[117]

57. The NUS also criticised worsening staff:student ratios as students' contact time with teaching staff was significantly reduced because of the larger class sizes.[118] The AUT cited their members' experience of reductions in laboratory and other practical work, and a lack of student access to libraries and computing facilities.[119] Dr Roger Brown said that the amount of contact students have with teaching staff was much less than ever before, and continued to decline. Students were increasingly taught in large groups, staff were under more pressure and the quality of tutorial work was suffering.[120]

58. Sir Howard Newby said undergraduate class sizes had risen over the last 20 years because of a decline in the unit of resource. More graduate students and teaching assistants were being used for undergraduate tuition, and, under pressures from the RAE, "star research professors" had been encouraged to focus by their institutions on a research role. Sir Howard argued that it was effective management to put more investment into "high quality research professors" without diverting some of their limited time into undergraduate teaching if this led to greater

financial return. He did not defend this "from the point of view of the student experience", but he urged the Sub-committee not to draw a conclusion that graduate students and teaching assistants offered poorer quality tuition than research professors.[121]

59. Dr Roger Brown argued that there was "no doubt" that the RAE was the biggest single factor preventing the higher education system from becoming genuinely diverse.[122] Mr John Randall said that the higher education system had placed a premium on research because of the RAE and the way in which it drove funding. It had the potential to distort institution's priorities because of its 'high-stakes' nature. He argued that in some institutions the Teaching Quality Assessment (TQA) had contributed to more balanced emphasis on teaching and research activities. He suggested that more could be done by institutions to help people manage their time in respect of priorities for teaching and research.[123]

60. Mr Bahram Bekhradnia said that HEFCE had funding mechanisms which recognised activities for which high quality, innovative teaching would be important, but he did not believe it was up to HEFCE to get involved in how institutions managed those funds and the incentives for their staff.[124] The Sub-committee put the view to Baroness Blackstone that a joint assessment of teaching and research would help balance institutions' priorities for teaching and research. The Minister said that she would not rule out a joint assessment exercise of both teaching and research, but she felt it was a matter for the sector itself to consider whether it would be less bureaucratic. She acknowledged there were complaints about the impact of both the RAE and the TQA on teaching quality. She cautioned that the practicalities of joint assessment would have to be carefully considered to ensure institutions were not turned "upside down whilst you were crawling over every aspect of the work".[125]

61. We are concerned that the overall quality of teaching should not suffer as the result of emphasis placed upon success in the Research Assessment Exercise. We recommend that the DfEE should seek wide representations from higher education staff on the impact of the 2001 RAE on their work-load and responsibilities. In the light of this, HEFCE should consider the possibilities of a joint teaching and research quality assessment to reduce the bureaucratic demands made on institutions and to give a more balanced view of overall performance.

62. We recommend that HEFCE and individual institutions should look carefully at earmarking funds for outreach activities and pastoral care, and ensure that excellence shown in these areas, especially by younger academics, should enhance rather than jeopardise career advancement and promotion.


  63. The Bett Report noted that the higher education sector was experiencing recruitment and retention difficulties for certain types of staff and in particular locations. Although these difficulties were not widespread, there was concern about the quality of the field for many jobs. The report highlighted worries about the prospect of significant recruitment and retention problems in the not too distant future.[126]

64. Sir Michael Bett expressed concern that changes in the financial support for students might have a negative effect on the recruitment of young academics. He argued that the level of the PhD stipend and the comparatively low salary for junior academics would be a disincentive to highly qualified graduates who had significant levels of debt to repay from their student loan. The chart below shows the relative decline of academic salaries compared to other occupational groups. The Sub-committee heard from Professor John Beath, Chairman of the Conference of Heads of University Departments of Economics, that in economics it was already proving to be extremely difficult to recruit UK students into PhDs in his discipline.[127] This point was echoed by Sir Howard Newby.[128] We recommend that the DfEE should urgently commission research on the impact of student debt on graduates' decisions on the feasibility of post-graduate study and academic careers.

65. As a result of the post-Robbins expansion of higher education, the demographic profile of the academic population indicates that a substantial proportion of professors and lecturers will come up to retirement in the next few years. Sir Michael Bett argued that the situation would become a "crisis" unless action was taken to recruit a large number of young academics to replace the "exodus" of senior academics from the higher education system.[129] Professor Beath described the problem as "a large group of people who are currently serious academics and in 2005 they will simply disappear from the system".[130]

66. We recommend that HEFCE should urgently commission research on the impact of demographic changes and retirements among senior staff over the next ten years, with a view to further recommendations to the Government on funding initiatives for key subjects at risk.

67. Overall, academic salaries have fallen behind those of many other groups in both the public and the private sectors. The AUT argued that "pay shortfalls" for academic and related staff in recent years had contributed to recruitment and retention difficulties, with a particular problem being the starting salaries for academic staff.[131] Whilst there is little hard evidence that this is leading to general recruitment difficulties, it is undoubtedly a cause of significant discontent among staff. This is not conducive to a committed, flexible response to new circumstances and needs that will characterise the development of higher education in the twenty­first century. The Secretary of State has allocated £50 million in 2001-02, £110 million in 2002-03 and £170 million in 2003-04 to be used, in part, to recruit and retain high quality academic staff in strategically important disciplines and to help modernise the management process in the higher education sector,[132] but this is insufficient to meet the needs identified in the Bett Report.

68. It is not yet apparent that students' experience of higher education has been detrimentally affected by recruitment and retention difficulties stemming from the relatively poor salaries for academics. In the long-run, however, we believe it is undeniable that recruitment difficulties will affect the quality of higher education. In certain disciplines there is already great difficulty in recruiting PhD students. We welcome the additional funding from the Secretary of State to recruit and retain high quality academic staff in strategically important disciplines. We acknowledge that university and college staff and their organisations do not regard this as adequate in relation to the broader needs of the academic profession. We urge the Government to address the growing disparity in salaries between academic appointments and career paths for equally qualified candidates in other fields.

103  Independent review of higher education pay and conditions (The Bett Report), 1999, paragraph 62. Back

104  Bett Report, recommendation 36. Back

105  Appendix 15, paragraph 16. Back

106  Appendix 16, paragraph 10. Back

107  Ev.p.98. Back

108  Bett Report, recommendation 56. Back

109  Appendix 15, paragraph 18. Back

110  Appendix 16, paragraph 4. Back

111  Appendix 15, paragraph 12. Back

112  Q. 254. Back

113  Q. 255. Back

114  See Q. 147 in HC 205 of Session 2000-01. Back

115  Appendix 15, paragraph 5. Back

116  Appendix 16, paragraph 7. Back

117  Appendix 16, paragraph 7. Back

118  Ev.p.98. Back

119  Appendix 16, paragraph 4. Back

120  Q. 156 in HC 205 of Session 2000-01. Back

121  QQ. 193-195. Back

122  Q. 180 in HC 205 of Session 2000-01. Back

123  QQ. 156-157. Back

124  Q. 438. Back

125  QQ. 480-481. Back

126  Bett Report, paragraph 62. Back

127  Q. 220. Back

128  Q. 220. Back

129  Q. 308. Back

130  Q. 308. Back

131  Appendix 16, paragraphs 14-15. Back

132  Appendix 17, paragraph 40 Back

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