Lecturers’ Pay

The pay dispute between academics and universities in the UK has revealed quite a lot about how universities and their senior management really operate. Now that the boycott of assessment is starting to bite universities are abandoning quality assurance measures in order to push students through to graduation. Students will be awarded degrees with incomplete marks, making a mockery of the lengthy process of designing and validating courses. Now external examiners are expressing their doubts that quality is being maintained, but it seems university heads don’t care and in some cases will abandon the external examining system for this year. The external examining system is a cornerstone of assessment in universities and abandoning it destroys the value of a university degree. Without external checks, how do we know the degree is of high enough standard?

The lecturers’ unions–the Association of University teachers (AUT) and the National Association of Teachers in Further and Higher Education (NATFHE)–have a valid claim for more pay. Even the university employers agree that academic pay has fallen far behind comparable professions. But there is one group of academics whose problems are not being addressed and whose conditions of employment are truly appalling. According to a survey conducted by the AUT and reported in the Times Higher Education Supplement (THES) short-term contracts are “endemic” in British universities. In 2003-4 around 66,000 academics were on fixed-term contracts; almost 20% replying to the THES survey were hourly-paid, which means they are paid per hour for their contact hours with students. These academics are not paid for preparation, marking, or for keeping up with their field. They have no career progression, no pension, no maternity pay, no sick pay, and no job security. Many of them have contracts at several universities, or have other jobs. They earn between £10 and £35 per contact hour. It’s a scandal that the current pay dispute will not end.

But the survey also shows that British universities have failed to address a fast-approaching piece of legislation. The THES article explains: “From July 10, they will have to justify why staff employed for four years or more on fixed-term contracts have not been moved to open-ended or permanent status.” The speed at which the universities addressed the problem of lecturers refusing to do their marking suggests they will not be able to do that.