Select Committee on Education and Employment Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum from the Association of University Teachers (HE 116)


  There are numerous reasons why thousands of students are leaving higher education institutions without completing their studies.[18] 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 education institutions.[19]

  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.[20] 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;[21]

    —  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,[22] and the fact that significant numbers of students are having to combine study with "part-time" employment.[23] 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.[24] 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 groups.[25] 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.[26] 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."[27]

  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").[28] 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.[29]

  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 contracts".[30] For example, such staff should be included in any institutional arrangements for training and staff development for teaching in higher education.


  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.[31]

  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.[32] Over the past two decades academic and related staff in the pre-92 sector and academic staff in the post-92 sector[33] 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.[34] 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.[35] 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 experience.

Association of University Teachers

January 2001

18   HEFCE (1997) Undergraduate non-completion in higher education in England, HEFCE 97/29. Back

19   HEFCE (2000) Performance indicators for higher education, 00/40, HEFCE. Back

20   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

21   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

22   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

23   National Union of Students and Trade Union Congress (2000) Students at Work, NUS, GMB. Back

24   Press Release "New study on student debt launched", Universities UK, 20 December. Back

25   HEFCE (1997) Undergraduate non-completion in higher education in England, HEFCE 97/29. Back

26   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

27   Bett (1999), R36. Back

28   A Chitnis and G Williams (1999) Casualisation & Quality, NATFHE/IoE, p 43. Back

29   Professor Mantz Yorke, evidence to the Education Sub-committee, 11 Jan 2001. Back

30   Bett (1999), R56. Back

31   Both reports can be found in CVCP (2000), Recruitment and retention in employment in UK higher education, CVCP. Back

32   See CVCP (2000). Back

33   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

34   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

35   HEFCE (2000) Fundamental Review of Research Policy and Funding, HEFCE, para 221. Back

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