Are claims over Durham University’s casual work contracts “misleading”?

By Ben Sladden

A report published by The Guardian on the prevalence of casual and precarious employment contracts in the hiring of academic staff at Durham University was reportedly “misleading” portraying a distorted picture of the nature of Durham academics’ pay.

The report, which was featured in The Guardian in November 2016, claimed that 60.5% of teaching and teaching-and-research staff are employed on temporary or “atypical” contracts at the University.

The University’s response however, claims that these forms of employment contracts are utilised far less commonly in the employment of teaching staff than The Guardian report stated.

A University spokesperson told Palatinate: “The Guardian article is slightly misleading in that it does not provide the context for the statistics and the way in which they are collected.”

The statistics cited in The Guardian report were collected from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) and have been analysed by the University and College Union (UCU), who represent professional staff in UK higher and further education sectors.

HESA issued a statement on the use of its data by The Guardian the day after the report was published and claimed that the newspaper aggregated the statistics for staff on “atypical” contracts along with staff on “fixed-term” contracts to make their claims. The agency claimed that the two groups “are not comparable according to HESA definitions.”

HESA defines a fixed-term contract as involving staff “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” contracts are defined as more precarious, involving short-term working arrangements.

In a UCU white paper, it was stated that “staff on insecure contracts struggle to deliver the high level professional service they strive for in the face of working conditions that leave them underpaid, vulnerable and constantly facing the prospect of unemployment.”

In response to the claims made in The Guardian report, a University spokesperson said: “When assessed as Full Time Equivalents, only 12% of teaching staff at Durham University were employed on an atypical or fixed-term contract for the 2014/15 academic year.”

Full Time Equivalent (FTE) metrics convert part-time employees’ hours into a full-time equivalent to provide a better indicator of total labour input than a simple headcount.

The Guardian’s use of data based on a headcount is understood to distort the overall picture of employment at the University because a large number of contracts are for a very small number of hours.

However, UCU, the union representing academic staff in the UK, claim FTE calculations themselves distort the picture.

The white paper states: “It is based on only looking at atypical workers, who account for only a fraction of hourly-paid and insecure staff.”

The FTE calculations that the University provided to Palatinate, however, incorporate both staff on fixed-term contracts as well as those on “atypical” contracts.

Included in the University’s press response was a statement defending the use of casual contracts when utilised:

“As a University, we require flexibility in order to respond to changes in the popularity of courses and the expansion of research projects.

We offer atypical or fixed term contracts in cases where there is a requirement to undertake work that is irregular and occasional. When the University agrees particular dates for staff on these contracts to work, that work is guaranteed.”

Visiting lecturers and postgraduate students are examples of the people we have on such contracts.”

Lisa Whiting, Academic Affairs Officer for the Student Union, expanded in her statement to Palatinate:

“The University needs to be clear exactly how these [casual and “atypical”] contracts are being used and for what purpose.

“We know postgraduates who teach can suffer from casualised employment resulting in being underpaid and without sufficient support for their work. This can have a detrimental impact on the quality of education students receive as well as cause significant stress for postgraduate teachers.”

Securing the best possible employment conditions for those delivering teaching is key to quality education and is in all students’ interests.”

The Guardian report speaks of universities employing those on the front line of teaching on precarious contracts whilst simultaneously carrying out costly expansion programmes and paying its senior administrative team high salaries.

The University’s financial statements for 2015/16 show that Vice-Chancellor, Professor Stuart Corbridge was paid an annual salary of £231,000 for 2016.

This is a reduction from the 2014/15 academic year when the then Acting Vice-Chancellor, Ray Hudson, and Vice-Chancellor, Professor Chris Higgins, were paid a combined salary exceeding £500,000 pounds.

The then President of the National Union of Students (NUS), Sorana Vieuru, commented in 2016 that “when university finances are being stretched to breaking point, and are over reliant on ever-rising tuition fees, it is almost immoral to see the generous expense policies afforded to already extremely well-paid vice-chancellors.”

Photograph: Durham University


Correction, 27 January 2017:

An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that in 2014/15, Acting Vice-Chancellor, Professor Ray Hudson, was paid a salary that exceeded £500,000. In fact, Professor Chris Higgins, Vice-Chancellor, and Professor Ray Hudson, Acting Vice-Chancellor, were paid a combined salary of £474,000, where Professor Higgins was paid £231,000 and Professor Hudson was paid £243,000. Professor Higgins was paid a further £82,000 “at the conclusion of his role as ambassador for the University,” leading to a combined total of £556,000. 

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