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The Changing Nature of Academic Contracts - Can Academics Be All Things to All People?

on Thursday, 17 May 2018.

Is the traditional "three-legged" academic contract suitable for all?

The Higher Education sector uses more different types of contract than most other sectors. However, a number of internal and external pressures have called into question whether the traditional 'three-legged' academic contract is suitable for all academics or whether alternative contracts or career paths should be used more widely.

The standard academic contract specifies three different types of duties - teaching, research and management/administration. These three 'legs' are used as a basis for recruiting academics, assessing their performance and form the basis of criteria for promotion. Whilst many excellent researchers are also excellent teachers, with recent and forthcoming developments in the sector many universities have introduced alternative contractual models for academics with an increased focus on specialisation and others are considering doing so.

Increased Focus on Teaching Excellence

The introduction of the Teaching Excellence Framework ("TEF") and students increasingly seeing themselves as consumers have thrown the spotlight on teaching. This will only increase with the new regulatory framework, the Office for Students making it clear that it will use all of its powers to protect students and their interests, the current review of post-18 education and the proposed introduction of subject level TEF from 2020.

For some HEIs, particularly those with a strong research focus, this has required a cultural shift, with teaching excellence being more of a priority than perhaps it was in the past. It also means that HEIs should be reviewing their current HR practices, policies and procedures to ensure that they sufficiently assess and recognise teaching performance throughout an academic's career.

Significant Responsibility for Research

In their submissions for the 2014 Research Excellence Framework ("REF") HEIs could be highly selective in which academics they chose to submit and the submissions did not necessarily represent overall research activity, as it was possible to improve scores by limiting the staff submitted to those with the best research outputs.

For the 2021 REF this will change, with HEIs required to submit all academics with significant responsibility for research. This has led to a number of HEIs introducing, or considering introducing, teaching-only contracts and teaching-only career paths.

Progression of Female Academics

With the HE sector reporting a median gender pay gap of 16.5% compared with a gap of 9.7% across all sectors, a parity of esteem between research and teaching, particularly in terms of promotion criteria, may also facilitate the progression of women to more senior roles and help bridge the gap.

What Steps May You Want to Consider Taking?

In the light of these developments there are a number of steps that your HEI may want to consider taking:

  • Review practices, policies and procedures to ensure that they sufficiently assess and recognise teaching performance.
  • Ensure that your performance management procedure is robust and that line managers are trained so that they have the confidence and competence to use it.
  • Consider introducing, or increasing the use of, teaching-only contracts.
  • Consider introducing a teaching only career pathway.

For more information please contact Jane Byford in our Employment Law team on 0121 227 3712.

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