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Universities take centre stage in the fight against Covid-19

Amid predictions that higher education will be changed forever by the current pandemic, Professor James Miller, Deputy Vice-Chancellor at Glasgow Caledonian University, suggests the innovative ways the sector is responding to the crisis will make it even more valued in the future.

New norms highlight the value of scientific experts and research collaboration

The current crisis has underlined the critical role played by the UK’s experts and researchers and the institutions supporting them, as well as the need for collaboration between them, says Dr Joe Marshall, Chief Executive of the National Centre for Universities and Business.

Online Learning Summit supports shift to remote teaching and learning

As a growing number of universities move teaching and assessment online in response to the coronavirus pandemic, the University of Derby is holding a virtual conference which aims to support staff in making the transition.

OfS cuts back regulatory demands in face of Covid-19 crisis

The Office for Students is leaving it up to universities to decide on particular approaches to the Coronavirus pandemic rather than issuing specific guidance, and has promised to minimises its regulatory demands on the sector in response to the crisis.

Study finds fewer Muslim students gain First or 2:1 degrees

A study has found substantial differences in degree attainment by students' religion or belief.

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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