In recent years AUT members have expressed the view that
the student experience has suffered from the under-funded expansion of
higher education and from increased financial hardship. One of the specific
problems to emerge is the significant number of students who are failing
to complete their studies. This is reflected in the select committee's
report on student retention in higher education. [i]
What is the scale of the problem?
According to the latest figures (1997-98), the rate of 'wastage' or
UK higher education is 17%. [ii] Eighty-three
per cent completion rates, however, are better than most other OECD countries,
for example France (55%), Germany (72%) and the USA (63%), though lower
than Japan (90%). [iii] While the proportion of UK students
leaving higher education early has remained more or less constant over
the last decade, there is no room for complacency.
This is because:
Comparing drop out rates in different countries is fraught with
methodological difficulties. In the US for example - where there
is an extensive system of credit accumulation - leaving a course
before the final year has less disastrous implications for students
than in the UK.
Although the proportion of students leaving higher education early
remained more or less constant throughout the 1990s, the increase
in student numbers has resulted in growing costs to the UK public
purse. The most recent calculation puts the cost of non-completion
in higher education at £200 million per year. [iv]
There are significant institutional variations in student retention.
Non-completion rates are much higher in inner-city, post-1992 universities
than research-intensive institutions.
The AUT believes that two key factors are particularly important
in contributing to the problem of student retention:
Other staffing issues are also contributing to student retention problems.
the doubling of student staff ratios over the past two decades without
a corresponding increase in student support services;
the increasing use of casual and hourly-paid staff to teach undergraduates,
resulting in fewer opportunities to provide academic and pastoral
growing difficulties in recruiting and retaining sufficient academic
and related staff, resulting in reduced contact time with students;
declining levels of pay, particularly in terms of starting salaries,
and the contribution of this to staff recruitment and retention problems.
debt & hardship
Financial hardship, levels of debt and the need for students to undertake
long hours of employment in term time, are major elements in decisions
to withdraw from university. [v] Research
shows that students from low income groups are far more likely to withdraw
because of financial difficulties than students from more privileged
backgrounds. [vi] Financial problems have been exacerbated by the removal of
the maintenance grant and the introduction of tuition fees. These developments
have led to an increased reliance on paid work during term time, which
can interfere with academic study and timetables. AUT members increasingly
comment on the difficulties experienced by students who are forced to
work long hours in part-time jobs in order to make ends meet, and who,
as a consequence, fall behind in their academic work and perform below
their abilities. Such factors can feed into a student’s decision
to discontinue his or her studies.
The AUT continues to urge a return
to a system of targeted maintenance grants as the best means of guaranteeing
wider access and improved completion rates. We also recommend that
the Westminster government makes long-term plans for the removal
of tuition fees in favour of Cubie-style post-graduation contributions
to fee costs. In the meantime, we urge the government to use up-front
fees exclusively in higher education.
support: the staff role
Supporting students throughout their academic careers is also important
in ensuring that they complete their studies. Apart from advice provided
by NUS and university welfare services, students often rely on academic
staff as a source of informal support. Students from non-traditional
backgrounds are often in greater need of support and guidance than middle
class students. However, the informal support role of academic and academic-related
staff is being undermined by current inadequacies in funding, pay and
A key problem is rising student:staff ratios. Student numbers have expanded
dramatically in the past three or four decades. In the early 1960s, only
one young person in twenty entered full-time higher education. By 1997-98
the figure had risen to one in three (34%) for the UK as a whole and
around 45% in Scotland and Northern Ireland. However, the increase
in academic and academic-related staff has not kept pace. Between 1980
and 1999 the student academic staff ratio (SSR) virtually doubled from
9:1 to 17:1 in the UK (in the USA it is 14:1 and in Japan it is 13:1).
At the same time, public funding per student has been cut by more than
The consequences of this underfunded expansion are:
larger class/lecture sizes with a sharp decrease in small group
teaching and in opportunities to provide support to individual students;
reductions in laboratory and other practical work because of cost-cutting
or pressure on facilities;
lack of adequate student access to libraries and computing facilities;
lecturers having difficulties in finding time with intensive workloads
to pursue their own professional development, e.g. using new IT-based
systems to enhance their teaching.
Academic staff are now working on average 55 hours a week in term-time,
compared to just over 40 hours in the 1960s. [vii] Owing
to demands from other areas, particularly pressure to contribute to the
research assessment exercise, there is now much less time for staff to
offer support to students who encounter personal or study-related problems.
The AUT recommends that over the next
decade the government provides funding to decrease SSR in each country
of the UK to 15:1 (currently only Scotland is at this level). During
the next three years, we recommend creating a minimum of 1000 posts
per year for staff engaged in learning support, primarily academic
staff, but also computer, library and other related staff involved
in teaching and learning activities.
Casualisation and learner support
Another related issue is the use of fixed-term and casual employment.
According to the survey in the Bett report (1999), there are now an estimated
30,000 casual hourly-paid staff carrying out academic and related roles
in UK higher education. [viii] They
represent nearly a fifth of all teaching staff and some 38% of teaching
staff in post-1992 higher education institutions outside Scotland.
The AUT does not believe that the quality of teaching is necessarily
of a lower standard when conducted by part-time or casual staff, although
a recent study found one or two 'grounds for major concern'. [ix] However,
on courses that rely on large numbers of hourly paid teachers, it becomes
much more difficult to deal with student queries and problems of course
organisation. Hourly-paid staff are only paid for their direct teaching
time, and therefore marking and office hour facilities are essentially
'unpaid extras'. First year courses in particular tend to be over-reliant
on casual staff, including postgraduate tutors. This may be crucial since
the 'first year experience' is the key to student retention. In order
to explore the relationship in more detail, a study of the effects of
casual employment practices on the support and pastoral care of students
The AUT campaigns for universities
and the research councils to reduce the use of fixed term contracts
in higher education.
Alongside this, we urge universities to implement
recommendation 56 of the Bett report (1999) which calls for 'greater
investment of time and resources in the training and development
of all groups of staff… particularly for part-time staff and
those on fixed-term contracts'. [x]
shortages and the impact on students
Recruiting and retaining high quality staff is becoming a growing problem
in higher education. The Bett report found there were particular difficulties
in business subjects, information technology, electronic engineering,
accountancy, law and some rarer specialisms. A quantitative survey, by
the Office of Manpower Economics, of 170 HEIs in October 1999, found
that recruitment and retention difficulties had increased since
the Bett study. In addition, in-depth qualitative case studies, conducted
by Industrial Relations Services, in 13 diverse HEIs during 1999 found
that all 13 institutions were experiencing recruitment problems in specific
academic specialisms and support functions, particularly in subject areas
crucial to the knowledge-driven economy. [xi]
Staff shortages are likely to result in larger university class sizes,
reduced student contact hours and a greater dependence on less qualified
staff to teach specialist courses. An increasing turnover of staff is
also likely to damage the continuity of educational and pastoral support
Pay and starting salaries
Pay shortfalls for academic and related staff in recent years have clearly
contributed to recruitment and retention problems among staff. Over the
past two decades academic and academic-related staff in the pre-92 sector
and academic staff in the post-92 sector have seen very little genuine
increase in their salaries. In fact, their pay has been cut in real terms
in nine of the years between 1981-82 and 2000-01. The 1999 Bett report
showed that academics' pay has fallen 30 per cent behind average earnings
for non-manual employees in the UK since 1981, a finding which supports
data in recent pay claims by The AUT.
Starting salaries for academic and related staff are particularly problematic.
The boxes (in the appendix) provide some dramatic
examples. While most of the comparator jobs are for employees who can
start work after leaving school, the minimum qualification for academic
and academic-related posts is a bachelor’s degree, lasting between
three and seven years. Most academic and research posts also require
a further minimum of three years spent studying for a PhD.
Postgraduate recruitment and retention
The relative unattractiveness of an academic career, particularly in
relation to pay, is harming the retention of graduate students. The value
of PhD stipends, despite recent increases, also remains inadequate. As
a consequence, there is a serious shortfall of individuals undertaking
doctoral research in key subjects such as economics/business studies,
mathematics/IT, physics and engineering. [xii]
The AUT recommends catching-up in full
the long-standing pay decline of 30 per cent in academic and related
pay, and dealing with gender pay differentials, as a way of reducing
staff recruitment and retention problems. We also recommend
further substantial increases in PhD stipends.
Appendix 1: Starting Salaries
Poor start 1
Researcher, post-92 higher education, £11,086
Sewage operator, Thames Water, £12,031[xiii]
Poor start 2
Lecturer, post-92 higher education, £15,349
Unskilled operator, Van den Bergh Foods, £15,755[xiv]
Poor start 3
Researcher and academic related (incl. London weighting), pre-92
higher education, £18,420
Assistant lifts & escalator staff (working nights), London
Poor start 4
Lecturer, pre-92 higher education, £20,865 (incl. London
Metropolitan Police constable (18 years, on appointment), £22,635
[i]House of Commons Education and Employment Committee
(2001) Higher Education: Student Retention, HC124.
[ii]HEFCE (2000) Performance indicators for higher
education, 00/40, HEFCE.
[iii] OECD (2000), Education at a glance: OECD Indicators
2000, Paris: OECD, Table C4.1.
[iv] Professor Mantz Yorke, of Liverpool John Moores
University, evidence to the select committee inquiry into student retention,
in House of Commons Education and Employment Committee (2001) Higher
Education: Student Retention, HC124, paragraph 23.
[v]C. Callender, Student Income and Expenditure
Survey, DfEE: London, December 2000.
[vi]HEFCE (1997) Undergraduate non-completion in
higher education in England, HEFCE 97/29.
[vii] Stephen Court (1996), The Use of Time by Academic
and Related Staff, Higher Education Quarterly, Vol. 50 No 4 pp
[viii]Sir Michael Bett (1999), Independent Review
of Higher Education Pay and Conditions, Stationery Office, Appendix
D5. According to Bett, this probably under-estimates the total
staffing the sector (see Appendix D76).
[ix] A. Chitnis and G. Williams (1999) Casualisation & Quality,
NATFHE/IoE, p. 43.
[x]Bett (1999), R56.
[xi]Both reports can be found in CVCP (2000), Recruitment
and retention in employment in UK higher education, CVCP.
[xii]HEFCE (2000) Fundamental Review of Research
Policy and Funding, HEFCE, par. 221; Strategic Marketing Associates
(1999) Survey of Postgraduate Students and Permanent Staff in Information
Technology and Computer Science, EPSRC website.
[xiii] IDS, Report 815, August 2000, p. 26.
[xiv] IDS, Report 805, March 2000, p. 26.
[xv] IDS, Report 785, May 1999, p. 31.