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Graduate earnings and HE admissions data mark another Groundhog Week in HE

Charlie Ball, Head of Higher Education Intelligence for Prospects at Jisc, reviews a week of higher education news which felt much like every other since lockdown, as new research on graduate earnings and university admissions was published.

Universities and students grapple with Covid and Brexit-related issues

Stephen Isherwood, chief executive of the Institute of Students Employers, reviews a week of HE news in which student accommodation, fee refunds, graduate jobs, and research funding surfaced as key issues.

Pandemic highlights gender inequality in HE

Reviewing a week in which issues affecting women’s lives were in the spotlight, Sandra Booth, Director of Policy and External Relations at the Council for Higher Education Art and Design (CHEAD), sees hopeful signs of moves to address gender equality in higher education.

Disadvantaged students and graduates need even more help in a pandemic

Commenting on a week of higher education news, Alice Gent, Policy, Research and Communications Intern, and Ruby Nightingale, Communications and Public Affairs Manager at the Sutton Trust, highlight evidence that Covid-19 is having a disproportionate impact on students and graduates from poorer backgrounds.

Fog starts to clear on road ahead for HE

Rachel Hewitt, Director of Policy and Advocacy for the Higher Education Policy Institute, sees signs of a clearer route out of the Covid crisis beginning to emerge for higher education.

Employers’ new infographics showing rise in permanent staff disputed by union leaders

There has been an increase in the proportion of academics on permanent contracts over the past decade, university employers say.

The total number of fixed-term (casual) contracts increased 2.9 per cent across a decade, compared with a 35.4 per cent increase in open-ended academic contracts, according to new infographics produced by the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA), using data from a joint working group established with the unions and from the Higher Education Statistics Agency.

But the figures have been disputed by the University and College Union, which has described them as “deeply misleading”.

According to UCEA, in 2015-16 nearly 66 per cent of academic contracts at universities in the UK were open-ended, up from 59 per cent ten years previously.

In total, the employers say 132,000 academic staff were on open-ended contracts in 2015-16, compared with 69,000 on fixed-term contracts.

Concern over “casualisation” of the university workforce will be high on the agenda when the unions meet the employers’ representatives on March 30 for the start of talks on the 2017-18 pay round.

The unions – UCU, Unison, Unite, GMB and EIS - are making their joint submission this week. The last scheduled date for negotiations is 27 April, but last year’s pay deal was not agreed by most parties until late November.  

There has been a dispute between the two sides around the inclusion or labelling of so-called “atypical” academic staff in the group of those on fixed term contracts. Many of this category of staff, say UCEA, are skilled industry professionals contributing to courses as teachers and lecturers or are PhD students who are also teaching.

Nearly half of fixed-term academics work in higher education institutions in contract research work and research fellowships “financed by time-limited external funding”, the group says.

Last November, Helen Fairfoul, Chief Executive of UCEA said: “Looking at the data again for individuals involved in teaching, and leaving out the misleading count for ‘atypicals’, 75 per cent of employees are on open-ended contracts; this number has in fact been steadily rising.”

On average, an atypical contract in HE is 17.5 days in a working calendar year, according to HESA data used in UCEA’s new graphics.

But Paul Bridge, UCU’s head of HE, disputed the figures.

He said:  “The infographics showing the extent of atypical contracts are deeply misleading and give a very diminished impression of the prevalence of these contracts in many universities today.

“UCEA has converted contracts to Full Time Equivalence (FTE). This is not a good way to measure small part-time contracts. Hourly paid teachers are paid just to teach whereas a full-time lecturer is paid for a full range of duties. One or two hourly-paid lecturers may do the same amount of teaching in a week as a full-time lecturer, but their FTE will look like a tiny fraction of that of a full-time lecturer. Day in, day out, hourly paid teachers work more hours than they are paid for and live with extraordinary insecurity as they struggle to build a career.

"UCEA’s infographics are an insult to hourly paid teachers and the work they do. A far more useful graphic would show us the proportion of classroom tuition hours being taught by staff on insecure contracts."

The issue of fixed-term or casual contracts and that of gender equality in pay are key areas in which the unions seek improvements.

Last year, an offer of 1.1 per cent was rejected, with the UCU’s general secretary Sally Hunt saying that university staff’s pay had fallen by nearly 15 per cent in real terms since 2009, while that of vice chancellors had risen five per cent in one year.

On the issue of gender pay, the union said male members of staff were earning on average 12.6 per cent more than a female one.

There were walkouts and demonstrations at many UK universities in the pay dispute last year, as staff “worked to contract”, before a settlement was reached. 

UCEA says it has been working with the unions over the past two years to tackle issues around pay and contracts.  An equal pay working group has been set up to advise and come up with guidance on closing the gender pay gap and on “variable hours and fixed-term teaching staff”.

UCEA infographic disputed by UCU
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