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Health educators battling with competing demands, says new UCU survey

6 July 2015

A new survey of UCU members who work in health education, the vast majority based in universities, found that they are battling to balance the competing demands of teaching, research and clinical practice. They are also under pressure to gain higher qualifications in order to earn promotion.

Like their counterparts across higher education, health educators reported that unmanageable workloads, a poor work-life balance, lack of defined time for continuing professional development, and grade drift, were major concerns.

Balancing roles

Although 71% had time in their contracts for research or self-managed scholarly activity, many reported struggling to get that time allocated because of the demands of the job.

Nearly two-thirds (63%) did not combine their role with clinical practice as it was either incompatible with their workload, or their university wouldn't facilitate it. Some had lost professional registration as a result. The remaining 37% who managed to combine their role with clinical practice were working either as link lecturers or tutors; via honorary NHS contracts, as NHS bank staff, or in private practice.

Poor terms and conditions

The survey revealed that despite being a very highly qualified group of professionals (62% of respondents have a Master's degree) the hours are long and they are not highly paid.

One-third (32%) of respondents wouldn't recommend health education as a career saying their professionalism was being eroded; pay, pensions, workload and professional opportunities were poor, and there were better opportunities for development in clinical practice. They felt undervalued and underappreciated with a poor work-life balance, some even going so far as to say they felt exploited.

Unmanageable workloads

Many described their workloads as unmanageable and 63% of members reported they were not happy with their workload. Large teaching caseloads, increased student support requirements and the longer teaching year that universities do not make any allowance for (health educators do a 45-week-year), were the factors that made workloads so stressful.

Lack of professional development opportunities

Despite working in a profession that never stands still due to continued medical advances, less than half (44%) of respondents said they were given support for defined continuing professional development, while 63% reported that there were no clear promotional pathways open to them.

Future of the profession

With the age of health educators skewed towards the over 50s, respondents were also concerned about future staff shortages. Those fears are heightened by the perception that the reputation of this profession is being eroded so it will attract fewer young entrants.

Respondents felt there was a lack of clarity about the future and value of education in healthcare, with a growing gap between the NHS and universities.

Many would still recommend the profession

Despite the negatives, two-thirds (68%) of respondents said they would recommend a career in health education. When asked about happiness they reported 'loving contact with students', and 'taking pride in seeing them progress through their courses'.

Read the full report:
UCU survey of health education members - report, Aug 15 [1mb]

Next steps

The survey was sent to 1739 UCU members, of which 341 responded. The survey's questions were drawn up by the Health Education Joint Liaison Committee (HEJLC) to help inform their work and that of UCU. It is clear from the survey response that UCU and the HEJLC need to focus on a number of key areas.
Health educators face unique issues around the transition between clinical practice and academic work, and the pressure of the longer working year and maintaining clinical experience. UCU and the health unions can do more to support this transition, providing information and guidance to ease the process.
Concerns raised about continuing professional development (CPD), workloads and grade drift have been expressed by staff working across higher education, with CPD and workloads also big issues in further education. UCU has already produced some bargaining guidance on CPD, and is looking to provide guidance on the other issues later this academic year.
If you want to find out more about UCU and the HEJLC's work in these areas, please contact Jenny Lennox.

Last updated: 17 November 2015