Insecure academics – just how much do universities rely on casual teaching staff?

A Freedom of Information request from the University and College Union reveals a reluctance by universities to share information about their use of teaching staff on hourly contracts

Casual staff have always played an important role in university teaching. Many graduate students and postdocs supplement their income by delivering lectures and tutorials, gaining valuable experience and often doing a great job. But has casualization gone too far? For university managers, cutting back on salaried staff is a tempting way of saving money, but one that is bound to damage the quality of teaching. Students need continuity: this requires experienced staff who have some investment in the institution they work for, and who have been involved in setting up, delivering and marking courses and who can build relationships with those they teach. As G.R. Evans noted in a blogpost last year, a university should be a “cohesive and self-critical academic community” – something that is just not possible if most staff are paid hourly.

Concern about short-term contracts is one of the three main issues that CDBU is campaigning on, so we were interested to see a recent report by The University and College Union (UCU) entitled ‘Precarious education: how much university teaching is being delivered by hourly-paid academics?’ This makes gripping reading: quite apart from the relatively high estimates of teaching being delivered by hourly-paid staff, a striking point was how difficult it was to obtain information from many institutions.

UCU sent 138 Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) a Freedom of Information Request, as follows:

1.  Please disclose the number of hours of scheduled learning and teaching activities that were delivered at your institution during the academic year 2015/16. Scheduled teaching and learning activities should be understood to be as defined by HESA here.

2.  Please disclose the number of hours of scheduled learning and teaching activities that were delivered by hourly paid lecturing staff during the academic year 2015/16.

Only 38 HEIs provided the requested information in full – in three cases only after a request for internal review of their refusal. Thirty-six ignored the request; 30 refused to provide information, citing FOI exemption to public authorities if the information is not held or it would take more than 18 hours and cost more than £450 to compile. The remainder provided partial information. The Russell Group universities were particularly reluctant to provide figures: only three of them did so.

Although UCU provides a table giving “indicative information” of the percentage of teaching delivered by hourly-paid staff in different HEIs, they emphasise that the numbers are hard to interpret. They certainly are! One may struggle to understand, for instance, how it was that two institutions (University of Durham and Imperial College) had over 100% of their teaching delivered by hourly-paid staff! The explanation seems to be that some classes were taught by a group of instructors, and the estimates of teaching hours were also incomplete.

Universities must be open about the number of casual staff they employ

The authors of the UCU report sensibly conclude that, while their estimates of teaching done by hourly-paid staff seem high (averaging at 27%), the underlying data are a mess, so we cannot draw strong conclusions or compare institutions. But the more important point that they raise is that this information should be readily available, and institutions should not be hiding it away.

We support their main recommendation:

UCU recommends that government should instruct the Office for Students to make it a requirement on universities to collect and publish data on their total annual teaching and the number of hours of teaching delivered by staff on insecure contracts.

Whenever universities are measured on anything, they start competing to be the best. We recommend that requiring them to report data on hourly teaching and short-term contracts, together with some data on staff satisfaction, would do far more than the deplorable Teaching Excellence Framework to help our universities retain their reputation for teaching quality.