The University of Exeter has been ranked sixth in the country for its percentage of teaching and teaching-and-research staff on temporary/‘atypical’ contracts, in a new investigation run by The Guardian newspaper.
This has led to a number of trade unionists to accuse vice-chancellors of importing a “Sports Direct model” into British universities. Alongside this, the National Union of Students has warned that low-paid and overstressed tutors may not be providing quality education to undergraduates.
More than half of Britain’s academic staff manage on insecure, non-permanent contracts which range from short-term (which usually elapse after nine months) to those paid hourly to give classes, or mark essays and exams. Furthermore, three-quarters of junior academics – who are most likely to teach on the front line – are employed on these contracts.
Exeter was found to employ 63.2 per cent of its staff through these contracts, far above the average, and just behind Queen’s, Belfast and Oxford whose rates were 63.6 per cent and 63.7 per cent respectively. Birmingham university topped the table, with 70.3 per cent of its staff receiving these contracts. The University of Cambridge was placed at the bottom of the table, with only 13.4 per cent.
One-year and two-year contracts are often inevitable when it comes to grant-funded research. However, the figures published by The Guardian appear to show that temporary and zero-hours contracts are commonplace within undergraduate teaching. It has been speculated that the results demonstrate a two-tier academic workforce, with many younger academics forced to live hand-to-mouth and unable to pursue research, whilst those at the top enjoy very sizeable salaries.
Sorana Vieru, the NUS Vice President, told The Guardian that, “when academic staff are demoralised and forced to cope with low pay and insecurity, the knock-on effect on students is significant… Many students are now taking on unprecedented levels of debt to go to university. They deserve good quality teaching and anything that damages that is deeply unjust.”
A spokesman for the University of Exeter said: “The University strongly refutes any claims that it provides ‘precarious employment’ for any of its staff. By focusing on headline-grabbing claims, this report ignores the crucial context behind the figures that have been generated.
“Some guest lecturers and occasional teachers – many of whom are Postgraduate Teaching Assistants – may also be offered temporary work which allows them the flexibility to undertake short-term teaching assignments. This is invaluable for their career development, while also completing their studies. They are remunerated according to the national pay scale. The University also abides by its code of practice for the employment of postgraduate students, which the Students’ Guild and UCU were invited to comment on. This limits the amount of teaching Postgraduate Research Assistants are allowed to undertake.
“The University actively endorses fair and equitable employment practices for all of its staff, and invests heavily in both supporting and promoting their work and career development. This was reflected in the most recent Staff Survey conducted by the University, where 88 per cent of all staff described it as being a good place to work.”
Russell Group statistics for most casual contracts:
Birmingham – 70.3%
Warwick – 68.1%
Edinburgh – 66.6%
Oxford – 63.7%
Queen’s, Belfast – 63.6%
Exeter – 63.2%
Queen Mary, London – 62.9%
Durham – 60.5%
Liverpool – 57.1%
Bristol – 56.2%