In a series of exclusive interviews with Impact, UoN lecturers speak frankly about the tension between teaching and research as a result of an increasing obsession with rankings in higher education. We find out how far this tension is likely to damage both student experience and academic progression.
Universities which are research-intensive institutions, like the University of Nottingham, are thought of as the elite within the UK higher education sector.
The University states that its strategic aim is to ‘advance knowledge by undertaking research of international standing across a wide range of disciplines’. Research attracts both investment and funding and as a result the University favours hiring staff who will be good at research.
The increasing emphasis on the Research Excellence Framework (REF), a system for assessing research in UK Higher Education, has put pressure on all UK Universities to submit a certain quality of research in exchange for funding.
One lecturer at UoN told Impact that she now feels under pressure to produce research that will be considered to be of extremely high quality, purely for the purposes of preserving the reputation of the University.
“Teaching is seen as a lower status activity”.
This was confirmed by a Social Sciences academic who told Impact: “The higher that a university thinks of itself or the higher it wishes to be in rank orders, the more research metrics are going to matter. At the same time, the higher the university is in research, the more it seeks to recruit higher ability students and charge higher fees.”
However, the focus on research output often comes at the expense of teaching.
“The University doesn’t want to be seen as an institution primarily concerned with teaching,” explained one lecturer. “Teaching is seen as a lower status activity.” Another admitted that as a result, “teaching is not necessarily high up on the agenda.”
Impact also learned that if an academic’s research output drops, they are put onto a teaching contract, which is regarded as a demotion.
All academics interviewed by Impact emphasised the tension between carrying out research and teaching, with some describing their profession as “almost like doing two jobs”. One lecturer commented that UoN academics are “being pulled in opposite directions”.
“The University wants us to teach more AND research more,” stated one lecturer, even though there is no extra funding being allocated to their departments. Consequently, some academics said that they find themselves in a situation in which they are unable to research or teach to the level that they would like to.
This tension between research and teaching highlights the balancing act that the University must maintain; on the one hand attracting funding through research and maintaining its reputation and on the other, obtaining high student satisfaction scores by giving UoN students ‘value’ for their money.
UoN academics are “being pulled in opposite directions”.
One Science lecturer admitted that in light of the tripling of tuition fees, UoN academic staff now feel that they need to be more available to their students. This demand from students for value for money is expected to increase if fees go up after the 2015 general election.
Another pressure on academic staff is the increasing amount of hours that they are expected to spend on administration.
Growing bureaucracy requirements, such as form filling and timetabling, mean that lecturers spend an unprecedented amount of time carrying out administrative tasks, taking them away from time spent on research and teaching.
An Arts lecturer told Impact that academic staff do not get enough support from UoN staff administrators. The lecturer told us that this was a problem with under-staffing rather than administrative incompetence.
An hours-based workload model similar to the Transparent Approach to Costing (TRAC) has recently been introduced internally at Nottingham.
TRAC was originally used by higher education institutions for costing their activities and working out how time should be allocated to tasks by academic staff. This system dictates that academics should be able to complete their work within a 38 hour week.
Academic staff do not get enough support from UoN staff administrators
However, the majority of lecturers Impact spoke to told us that they usually work an average of 45-60 hours per week. At marking times, it was estimated that this could increase to 80 hours in one week.
One UoN lecturer half-joked that, “If we stopped work after 38 hours every week, the university would fall apart after about three days.” Another told us: “It’s fairly obvious that all of us are working more than our contracted hours [but] we can’t [afford to] hire more staff to lessen that.”
If we stopped work after 38 hours every week, the university would fall apart after about three days
Impact found that there was a common concern amongst academics over the lack of job security and in regard to the steady decline in real terms of pay. Job security is particularly an issue for younger academics as many can be hired on fixed term contracts.
The University enforced a fixed term contract policy on 1st May 2008. UoN outline in their document on fixed policy that the University needed to establish a ‘shift towards a more permanent culture amongst certain groups of staff [in order] to attract, retain and motivate high calibre staff at all levels’.
The University noted that ‘the perceived low status and morale of fixed-term employees presents a risk to the achievement of these aims.’
However, in spite of the University’s promise to adjust its policy, fixed term contracts are still used for new employees. Of the 45 vacancies currently being advertised on the UoN website, 36 vacancies are for jobs on fixed term contracts, ranging from six months to five years.
Coincidentally, out of 3239 academic staff, 1023 are on fixed term contracts; 32 are clinical academics, 825 are in research, 104 are in teaching and 62 are in research and teaching. Of the 1423 academic staff who have previously been on fixed term contracts, 988 are now on permanent contracts.
One young UoN lecturer told Impact that his fixed term contract was set to end early next year. As a result, he had to consider the possibility that his contract may not be renewed, meaning that he was now spending his time searching and applying for jobs at other higher education institutions.
Another lecturer revealed that it is impossible to make permanent living arrangements or even “live a normal life,” as they do not know where they will be in a years time.
Nevertheless, there was some consensus that temporary contracts enable younger lecturers to obtain sufficient experience to be offered a permanent contract when they apply for their next job.
Out of 3239 academic staff, 1023 are on fixed term contracts
However, academics can get stuck in a cycle of constantly being re-hired on fixed term contracts, rather than being offered a permanent position.
The pay of university staff in real terms has been cut by 13% since October 2008. One UoN member of staff confirmed to Impact that they are currently paid less than they were four years ago.
The latest public figures indicate that the highest paid academic at UoN receives £67,377 while the lowest is paid £13,486. There are 57 different pay brackets altogether, which are split into six different career ‘levels’.
Professors salaries are negotiable and can range from £56,467 to £77,461, although in exceptional cases can reach up to £92,541.
Objections over pay for lecturers came to a head at the beginning of November, with the participation of 233 UoN staff in the joint UCU-Unison-Unite day long strike, of which 209 were academics. Another joint strike will be taking place on Tuesday 3rd December 2013.
The pay of university staff in real terms has been cut by 13% since October 2008.
The pressures on academics are not exclusive to UoN. David Willetts, Minister for Higher Education, recently called for a “cultural change back towards teaching”, while also increasing the pressures of REF point scoring.
In the context of this national issue, one lecturer admitted that at UoN “there’s more balance here than at a lot of universities”.
However alongside more attention to administrative tasks, the introduction of impractical contract hours and job insecurity, this investigation reveals the real concerns felt by academic staff at the University about being able to maintain high quality teaching alongside research.
“There’s more balance here than at a lot of universities”.
In response to our investigation, the University commented:
“Last year the University surveyed every member of staff about their work. We note the concerns raised in Impact and advise anyone wanting to discuss these matters to make use of the formal routes established through our management structures and trade union representatives.
“Times are tough across public services and as a result there is significant restraint on public spending which we can expect to remain. Despite these challenges, the University continues to offer a good working environment and pay and benefits package”.
Although the University staff survey confirms that academics view UoN as ‘a good place to work’, some of the issues that this investigation has uncovered were highlighted by this survey as areas in need of improvement, such as ‘training and career development’ and ‘work load pressure’.
Kateryna Rolle and Ella Funge
Research: Alexander Bartlett, Caroline Chan – Senior News Reporter, Jack Fox-Powell, Hollie Poulter, Amy Jaciuch and Priya Thethi
Image: Matt Buck (The UoN lecturer in the photo has not been involved in this investigation.)
*LECTURERS INTERVIEWED COME FROM EIGHT DIFFERENT DEPARTMENTS AT THE UNIVERSITY OF NOTTINGHAM, AND REQUESTED TO BE KEPT ANONYMOUS.