This article is more than 4 years old

Who works in a university?

David Kernohan tip-toes precariously around what the various categories in the HESA Staff Return actually mean for how we understand the nature of the HE workforce.
This article is more than 4 years old

David Kernohan is Acting Editor of Wonkhe

Who does what in a university, how well are they paid and what are their terms and conditions? It’s a common enough question, but it is surprisingly difficult to answer. All kinds of language – precarious, atypical, fixed-term – is thrown around interchangeably in campaigns, tweets and blogs.

The Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) Staff Record is a complex beast, and though it is easy to get a quick answer to such queries, getting a meaningful one requires a little more effort.

Fun with definitions

It is easy to make assumptions about the way employment contracts are described – but the words used are very carefully defined and controlled – as is essential to the production of a reliable dataset. Here I’m going to quote directly and at some length from the HESA definitions document for their Staff Record – a document well worth getting to know before you start building graphs or making comparisons.

Open-ended/permanent staff are those who are employed on a contract of employment that states the member of staff as permanent or on an open-ended contract. This includes term-time only staff who are employed on an open-ended contract.

Fixed-term contract staff are those employed for a fixed period of time or with an end date on their contract of employment. This includes staff on rolling fixed-term contracts.

Atypical staff are defined [in 2003 Department of Trade and Industry guidance that appears to have fallen off the internet!] as those whose working arrangements are not permanent, involve complex employment relationships and/or involve work away from the supervision of the normal work provider. These may be characterised by a high degree of flexibility for both the work provider and the working person, and may involve a triangular relationship that includes an agent.

What is an academic?

Here’s one of my very favourite HESA definitions: what are academic staff?

Academic staff are defined as staff at least one of whose contracts of employment was for an academic function and whose contract activity can be categorised as ‘managers, directors and senior officials’, ‘professional occupations’ or ‘associate professional and technical occupations’ as defined by the 2010 Standard Occupational Classification (SOC) major groups 1, 2 or 3. This may therefore include vice-chancellors and other senior academic managers, medical practitioners, dentists, veterinarians and other health care professionals whose contract of employment includes an academic function.

The academic employment function may be teaching, research, teaching and research or neither teaching nor research (where an academic professional that has taken up a senior administrative responsibility but there is no change to the academic function in their contract of employment).

Got that? Academic staff have a contract to perform an academic function, defined as teaching, research, both – or neither.

Of course, a lot of people teach without having an academic contract – librarians are an excellent example, PhD students are another. It is equally possible for a non-academic to be engaged in research – how else would we define our army of highly skilled project managers and lab technicians?

Without an academic contract you don’t get identified as academic staff in institutional data returns to HESA. This would be fairly straightforward if there was any nationally accepted definition of what an “academic contract” is. However, institutional autonomy means that different employers use contracts in different ways – it is entirely possible for someone employed as a senior administrator to be on an academic contract and identified as such.

Precarity and atypicality

HESA provides some additional advice on what an atypical contract looks like, which includes examples of roles that would fit this definition:

(Atypical contracts) are for less than four consecutive weeks – meaning that no statement of terms and conditions needs to be issued

are for one-off/short-term tasks – for example answering phones during clearing, staging an exhibition, organising a conference. There is no mutual obligation between the work provider and working person beyond the given period of work or project. In some cases individuals will be paid a fixed fee for the piece of work unrelated to hours/time spent

involve work away from the supervision of the normal work provider – but not as part of teaching company schemes or for teaching and research supervision associated with the provision of distance learning education

involve a high degree of flexibility often in a contract to work as and when required – for example conference catering, student ambassadors, student demonstrators.

Now you are probably thinking that many of the tasks above do not feel like what would be conventionally described as “academic” work. Not that academics don’t do one-off or short-term tasks like working the phones during clearing (they do!), but they tend not to be employed specifically to do this.

The “four consecutive weeks point” is key – this would cover some academic tasks. A single guest lecture from an expert in industry would be one example, short-term illness cover would be another. But the term-long part-time low hours teaching-only contracts – the “precarious” contract that has sadly become a feature of academic life – is correctly identified as a part-time fixed-term contract.

But what about non-academic atypical contracts? The single most startling fact in this article is that we simply don’t know the extent of their use. Though HESA collects details for those identified as academic staff on what it calls “atypical contracts”, it no longer (since 2015-16) collects this information for others employed on campus.

Between 2007-08 and 2014-15, “non-academic” atypical staff were returned to HESA on an optional basis. For 2015/16 onwards, “non-academic” atypical staff are excluded from the coverage of HESA staff data.

This comes down to matters of data collection burden and data quality – getting every member of staff who comes in to a university to fill out a HESA staff record return is a mammoth undertaking for any institution. The original impetus for the collection was linked to equalities monitoring – the buffer body formerly known as Hefce wanted data on disproportionate use of certain contracts for staff with certain characteristics. But institutional lobbying meant that it came to an end outside of academic staff contracts.

What are the numbers?

Here’s the raw numbers on these different kinds of contract (excluding atypical), for the full range of employment roles.

[Full screen version here, note that MPT stands for managerial, professional and technical]

And here’s the raw numbers of atypical contracts.

A couple of points here – the very low rates of return for non-professional occupation types do not reflect the total extent of “atypical” use for those kind of roles in HE. Rather, these are Standard Occupational Codes (SOCs) that are more likely linked to salary levels – as every institution handles these things differently sometimes (for example) a junior research assistant setting up samples for assay will be returned as having an academic contract and a technical occupation.

[full screen]

More information needed

However, we can’t just use part-time fixed-term contracts as a measure of precariousness. For those on an academic contract, such numbers will also include those employed to work on a specific externally-funded research project (with an end date) who chose a part-time working pattern. They will also include an eminent visiting professor who appears four or five times a year to give a lecture and attend some seminars. They will even include an interim deputy vice chancellor.

To properly consider precarious employment, we need more information than this dataset shows us. We need to consider salary levels – a six-month part-time contract at £35,000 pro rata feels very different to a six-month contract at £25,000 pro rata. We also need to consider intent – on behalf of the institution and the employee – and we need to consider wider circumstances. As an example on the latter, whereas a comparatively well off retired academic may be quite happy taking on a short-term contract to run a few of their old favourite seminars, a 22 year old part-time catering assistant, or post-doctoral research assistant, may be far from content with similar working hours.

[Full screen]

Fundamentally, everyone who works in and around universities should be fairly paid, with good terms and conditions of employment. There is a clear, and well-documented issue with casualisation among early career academic staff. And there is a comparatively undocumented issue around terms and conditions for others on campus. With both we are starting to see progress, but there is still a lot of work to be done – understanding the data we have and the human stories that underlie it will be essential.

2 responses to “Who works in a university?

  1. As you demonstrate in this article, the HESA staff record does not currently provide the sector with sufficient information to enable an informed view on staff contracts, particularly for staff on non-standard arrangements. This was acknowledged back in 2015 when UCEA, for the sector employers, and the five sector trade unions came together to work on casual employment practices and produce a joint report which highlighted the shortcomings of the existing data (see link).

    That’s why UCEA, again in collaboration with the five HE trade unions, came up with joint proposals in 2016 and subsequently worked with HESA to seek sector agreement to some enhanced contractual fields in the staff record. As a result the next published 2017-18 staff record will include three new markers – ‘hourly-paid’, which will identify those staff on fixed-term and open-ended contracts who are hourly paid, ‘zero hours contract’, and ‘apprenticeship’. It is hoped that these new markers will help modernise the staff record and assist in a better understanding of trends and features of non-standard working in the sector.

  2. Coming a bit late to this, following a reference in #USSbriefs88.Thanks for this excellent article David, and all your others, and for the update Laurence – where has this 2017-8 data you mention and three new markers been published?

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