Higher Education: Casual approach to a teaching shortage: There is concern that a growing reliance on short-term staff and students will create long-term problems for academic careers. Liz Heron reports

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The Independent Online
A LARGE increase in the use of short-term and part-time staff and postgraduate students for university teaching and research is causing concern about academic standards. There are also growing fears of a future staffing crisis in the universities.

The Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals delivered its submission to the Government's autumn public spending review last week, and highlighted the increasing reliance being placed on part-time and short-term contract staff as financial uncertainty and mounting deficits deter universities from employing permanent staff.

'People who will be needed to teach additional students and to replace the present generation of academic staff are denied reasonable career progression,' the vice chancellors pointed out. 'As a result, the age profile of permanent staff is unbalanced'.

From 1980 to 1991, the number of staff in the old universities on short-term contracts more than doubled from 9,000 to 19,400 and the number of part-time staff increased nearly threefold from 1,600 to 4,600. The same decade saw a decline in the recruitment of new permanent full- time academic staff in the old universities, such that the proportion of staff under the age of 35 fell from 29 per cent to 15 per cent between 1979 and 1989. By 1989, 70 per cent of permanent staff were 40 or older.

In some subjects the skew towards older staff is even more marked: 79 per cent of French staff and 75 per cent of English academics are over 40 and a recent survey of 28 English departments by the Council for University English found that little was being done to redress the imbalance. No department appointed a professor or senior lecturer last year; four lecturers were appointed at the senior scale B; 28 junior scale A appointments were made; and seven teaching assistants were appointed.

Marion Shaw, the survey's author, says: 'Over the last few years there have been virtually no appointments to senior lectureships, and even grade B appointments are rare. The policy is to have only one or two senior posts and to appoint at junior levels, and there seems to be considerable casualisation at the lower end of the market.'

According to the Association of University French Professors, the withering away of postgraduate studentships in the humanities could mean that in future there will not be enough people with the qualifications necessary to take up academic careers in French. Figures released by the association show that 18 per cent of academics doing research in French are over 55 and 43 per cent are over 50. Yet in 1991, only 17 research scholarships in French were given by the British Academy.

Jill Forbes, Professor of French at the University of Strathclyde, says: 'I suspect that there are not sufficient postgraduates in the system even to replace the numbers of staff who will be retiring in the next five years. If you look ahead to 10 years' time, when a large block of people will be retiring, we are going to need many more postgraduates.'

The social sciences face a similar problem. Research commissioned by the Economic and Social Research Council indicates that to replace retiring academics at current staffing levels, 1,000 new lecturers a year will need to be appointed by the late Nineties. Taking as a baseline the 45 per cent of existing social science lecturers who have PhDs, the ESRC has worked out the number of PhDs it needs to be producing to ensure that there are qualified candidates to meet this future demand. This year it should be producing 435 PhDs, but is only able to fund 350.

In science and engineering, however, the picture is of a swelling pool of postgraduates competing for a dwindling number of permanent jobs. Peter Collins, head of the policy studies unit at the Royal Society, says: 'The number of long-term appointees has gone down and the number of short-term appointees on contracts of between one and three years has gone up very sharply. At some halcyon time called the good old days, you would get one short-term post, or possibly two, and after doing two you would be certain of getting a promotion. That expectation is now wholly unrealistic, but people don't realise this'.

Parallel surveys of part-time academic staff by the Association of University Teachers and the National Assocation of Teachers in Further and Higher Education support fears of the formation of an academic underclass with postgraduate students at the bottom of the pile. The majority of part-time staff were on short term contracts and were not paid pro-rata with full-time staff. In the new universities, 88 per cent had received no staff development - such as training or time off to attend conferences - while in the old, 43 per cent of teaching staff and 30 per cent of research staff had received no staff development.

The CVCP itself recommended increasing use of postgraduates for teaching, marking and lab demonstrations in its advisory document How To Do More With Less, and the practice is spreading across the country. Preliminary results from a survey by the National Postgraduate Committee of postgraduate students with teaching duties at Leeds University show that all but one of the students received no training in how to teach, and that 16 per cent worked longer than the maximum 180 hours per year recommended by the research councils to ensure that PhD completion rates are not affected. Of the 57 per cent who undertook laboratory demonstrating, 74 per cent received no safety training, while more than half were left alone in charge of a lab. The average pay per hour was pounds 6.50p - marginally above the going rate for a London domestic cleaner.

Beyond calls for more Government money, minimum training and employment standards for part-time staff and postgraduate students, a little is being done to address the wider problems of staff succession and erosion of professional integrity.

The ESRC has begun to target its PhD studentships at the fields which face the greatest recruitment difficulties: education, management, socio-legal studies, computing, statistics and business studies, in an attempt to stave off acute staffing crises. It is also beginning to fund part-time PhDs, for which there is a growing demand.

And the Royal Society is calling for selective funding of individual postgraduates on longer contracts to nurture talented young researchers who would then be able carry a five-year contract between institutions and not be tied to a particular project.

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