Memorandum from the Association of University
Teachers (HE 116)
There are numerous reasons why thousands of
students are leaving higher education institutions without completing
The Association of University Teachers (AUT) believes that two
key factors, in particular, are worth emphasising:
growing student hardship and the
reduced amount of time available
for staff to provide academic and social support to students.
In addition, we believe that the following staffing
issues are contributing to student retention problems:
the doubling of student staff ratios
without a corresponding increase in student support services,
the casualisation of academic and
related staff and in particular the fact that hourly paid staff
are only paid for direct teaching time,
increasing difficulties in recruiting
and retaining sufficient academic and related staff, resulting
in reduced contact time with students,
declining levels of pay, particularly
in terms of starting salaries, and the contribution of this to
staff recruitment and retention problems.
On casualisation, we make two specific recommendations:
the relevant stakeholders sponsor
research on the impact of casual employment practices on the quality
of undergraduate teaching and,
higher education institutions implement
recommendation 56 of the Bett Report (1999) on training and personal
development for casual and part-time staff.
At the same time, it is our strong belief that
the quality of staff employed in higher education has, despite
the above difficulties, enhanced rather than detracted from the
quality of the student experience.
1. The Association of University Teachers
(AUT) represents over 40,000 academic and academic-related staff
in UK universities, colleges and research institutes; we have
members in both the "old" and "new" (post-1992)
universities. After examining the issue of student access, we
welcome the Education Sub-committee's decision to focus on student
retention. The inquiry is timely, given the evidence of growing
non-completion rates and significant disparities between higher
2. The issue of student retention is a subject
of great concern to our members. Over recent years our members
have consistently expressed the view that the quality of the student
experience has suffered from the under-funded expansion of higher
education and from increased student financial hardship. The expansion
is often presented as a great success story, but there has undoubtedly
been a price to pay which is reflected in the daily experience
of our members working directly with students.
3. Whilst student numbers have expanded
dramatically in the past two decades, the increase in academic
and related staff involved in teaching and support roles, as well
as research, has not kept pace. The student academic staff ratio
(SSR) over the past two decades tells a stark story.
Between 1980 and 1999 the ratio virtually doubled from 9:1 to
17:1 in the UK.
4. However, the key source of information
on the quality of the student experience is the student and staff
themselves. In recent years, the problems most frequently reported
by our members include:
larger class/lecture sizes with a
sharp decrease in small group teaching and in opportunities to
provide support to individual students;
reductions in laboratory and other
practical work because of cost cutting or pressure on facilities;
and lack of adequate student access
to libraries and computing facilities.
Lecturers also talk of their difficulties in
finding time with intensive workloads to pursue their own professional
development, for example, to learn how to use new IT-based systems
to enhance their teaching.
5. One of the key issues in the student
retention debate concerns the financial burden on students. The
Sub-committee will be aware of the growing evidence of student
debt and hardship,
and the fact that significant numbers of students are having to
combine study with "part-time" employment.
Because of this we welcome the decision by Universities UK to
fully research the effects of debt and term-time working on students'
completion of higher education programmes.
Unsurprisingly, previous research found that students from lower
socio-economic groups were far more likely to withdraw because
of financial difficulties than students from the highest socio-economic
Since then we have seen the withdrawal of student grants; a factor
which has probably exacerbated these trends.
6. Student poverty has a direct and sometimes
decisive impact on student learning. Indeed, this is currently
by far the most common source of the concerns expressed by our
members. They increasingly comment on the difficulties experienced
by students who are forced to work long hours in part-time jobs
during term time in order to make ends meet, and who, as a consequence,
fall behind in their academic work and perform below their abilities.
There may be a number of reasons for the recent increase in non-completion
rates in higher education, but almost every lecturer seems to
know of individual examples of students failing to complete courses
for financial reasons.
7. Institutional provision of pastoral support
and advice is also a key factor in student retention. Owing to
demands from other areas, particularly pressure to contribute
to the RAE, there is now less time for staff to offer support
to students who encounter personal or study-related problems.
Reduced contact time is a particular problem given that the demand
for such support has increased significantly as a result of the
diversification of the student population. Students from traditionally
under-represented groups and neighbourhoods are likely to require
greater pastoral support and guidance than students from middle-class
backgrounds. The success of the government's plans for widening
participation, therefore, will be partly shaped by the quantity
and quality of student pastoral support on offer.
8. Alongside pressures on staff time, the
modularisation of the higher education curriculum may have exacerbated
the problem of reduced pastoral support. Modularisation often
leads to a more frequent assessment of students, but not necessarily
to a consistent and coordinated approach to student development.
Consequently, there may be an increasing number of students who
are "falling through the net". The Association believes
that there is a strong case for greater academic and social support
for students, particularly those from families with little background
in higher education. But this will require extra expenditure to
be devoted towards improving the teaching infrastructure, especially
through the creation of additional teaching posts and the upgrading
of learning support services.
9. One of our major concerns as a trade
union is the nature and extent of academic casualisation. Casualisation
undermines career progression, creates great insecurity, erodes
academic freedom, contributes to the levels of stress, and acts
as a major barrier to the recruitment and retention of high quality
academic and related staff. In addition, the Association believes
that casualisation is related to the issue of student retention.
According to the survey in the Bett report, there are now an estimated
30,000 casual hourly-paid staff carrying out academic and related
roles in UK higher education.
They represent nearly a fifth of all teaching staff and some 38
per cent in post-1992 higher education institutions outside Scotland.
This is clearly an unacceptable situation, and the Association
notes recommendation 36 in the Bett Report:
"There is scope for many HE institutions
to reduce their use of fixed-term and casual employment."
10. The Association does not believe that
the quality of teaching is necessarily of a lower standard when
conducted by part-time or casual staff (although a recent study
found one or two ". . . grounds for major concern").
However, on courses which rely on large numbers of hourly paid
teachers, it becomes much more difficult to deal with student
queries and problems of course organisation. Hourly-paid staff
are only paid for their direct teaching time, and therefore marking
and office hour facilities are essentially "unpaid extras".
First year courses in particular tend to be over-reliant on casual
staff, including postgraduate tutors. This may be crucial since
the "first year experience" is the key to student retention.
11. In order to explore the relationship
in more detail, we call upon the relevant stakeholders in higher
education to sponsor a genuine study of the effects of current
casual employment practices on the quality of undergraduate teaching.
In addition, we call upon the sector to implement recommendation
56 of the Bett report which calls for "greater investment
of time and resources in the training and development of all groups
of staff . . . particularly for part-time staff and those on fixed-term
For example, such staff should be included in any institutional
arrangements for training and staff development for teaching in
12. Recruiting and retaining high quality
staff is becoming a growing problem in higher education. The Bett
report found there were particular difficulties in business subjects,
information technology, electronic engineering, accountancy, law
and some rarer specialisms. A quantitative survey, by the Office
of Manpower Economics, of 170 HEIs in October 1999, found that
recruitment and retention difficulties had increased since the
Bett study. In addition, in-depth qualitative case studies, conducted
by Industrial Relations Services, in 13 diverse HEIs during 1999
found that all 13 institutions were experiencing recruitment problems
in specific academic specialisms and support functions, particularly
in subject areas crucial to the knowledge-driven economy.
13. The Association believes that these
shortages are of significance for the Sub-committee's enquiry,
since they are likely to result in larger university class sizes,
reduced student contact hours and a greater dependence on less
qualified staff to teach specialised courses. An increasing turnover
of staff is also likely to damage the continuity of educational
and pastoral support students receive.
14. Pay shortfalls for academic and related
staff in recent years have clearly contributed to recruitment
and retention problems among staff.
Over the past two decades academic and related staff in the pre-92
sector and academic staff in the post-92 sector
have seen very little genuine increase in their salaries. In fact,
their pay has been cut in real term in nine of the years between
1981-82 and 2000-01. In all, pay for pre-92 academic and related
staff has risen by 5 per cent in real terms in that time.
By contrast, average earnings for all full-time employees (manual
and non-manual) has risen by 44 per cent over inflation since,
and only failed in one year to rise above the level of inflation.
15. Starting salaries for academic and related
staff are particularly problematic. The boxes (in the Annex) provide
some dramatic examples. While most of the comparator jobs are
for employees who can start work after leaving school, the minimum
qualification for academic and related posts is a bachelor's degree,
lasting between three and seven years. Most academic and research
posts also require a further minimum of three years spent studying
for a PhD.
16. The relative unattractiveness of an
academic career, particularly in relation to pay, is harming the
retention of graduate students. For example, the recent HEFCE
review of research has highlighted the serious shortfall of individuals
going on to undertake postgraduate research training in particular
subjects such as Economics.
This suggests that "non-completion" is caused in distinct
ways among different types of students. More generally, it illustrates
the importance of employing well-paid, well-resourced and highly
motivated staff as a means of improving the quality of the student
Association of University Teachers
18 HEFCE (1997) Undergraduate non-completion in higher
education in England, HEFCE 97/29. Back
HEFCE (2000) Performance indicators for higher education,
00/40, HEFCE. Back
Academic staff includes all full-time and part-time academic
staff (primarily researchers) wholly funded by an external source.
Student numbers include all full-time and part-time undergraduates
and postgraduates from the UK, EU and other overseas. Back
An inability to devote enough time to the growing student population
is a considerable source of stress for some academic and related
staff. See Association of University Teachers (1998) Pressure
points: a survey into the causes and consequences of occupational
stress in UK academic and related staff, AUT, p 11. Back
DfEE (2000) Changing Student Finances: Income Expenditure
and the Take-up of Student Loans among Full-time and Part-time
Higher Education Students in 1998-99 DfEE; Barclays (1999)
Student Debt Survey, Barclays; National Union of Students (1999)
Student Hardship Survey, NUS. Back
National Union of Students and Trade Union Congress (2000) Students
at Work, NUS, GMB. Back
Press Release "New study on student debt launched",
Universities UK, 20 December. Back
HEFCE (1997) Undergraduate non-completion in higher education
in England, HEFCE 97/29. Back
Sir Michael Bett (1999), Independent Review of Higher Education
Pay and Conditions, Stationery Office, Appendix D5. According
to Bett, this probably under-estimates the total staffing the
sector (see Appendix D76). Back
Bett (1999), R36. Back
A Chitnis and G Williams (1999) Casualisation & Quality,
NATFHE/IoE, p 43. Back
Professor Mantz Yorke, evidence to the Education Sub-committee,
11 Jan 2001. Back
Bett (1999), R56. Back
Both reports can be found in CVCP (2000), Recruitment and
retention in employment in UK higher education, CVCP. Back
See CVCP (2000). Back
Pre-92 refers to the "old" universities; post-92 here
refers to the "new" universities or former polytechnics
in England and Wales. Comparable data on pay movements in the
post-92 sector in Scotland are not available. Back
Pay settlements in 1981-2001 in the pre-92 sector have been the
same for all pre-92 grades and scales of academic and related
staff, so percentage increases for a particular grade (for example,
Lecturer B, top of scale) can be applied to all grades. Back
HEFCE (2000) Fundamental Review of Research Policy and Funding,
HEFCE, para 221. Back