Students want universities to invest in teaching staff. Why won't they listen?

Posted on: 2018-09-12 06:30:00

It’s a well-known and much-maligned fact that students in England now pay some of the highest university tuition fees in the world, but it’s often less clear how institutions choose to spend that income.

The latest Education at a Glance report, published this week by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, has revealed that despite the sky-high fees, the UK spends proportionally less on university staff than many of its international competitors.

UK spending on tertiary education staff as a proportion of current expenditure stands at just 63% – lower than both the OECD average (68%) and the EU average (70%). Many of our nearest competitor countries invest a significantly higher proportion in their tertiary workforce, with France spending 80%, Belgium 76% and Germany 67% of their current expenditure on staff.

That’s significant for a number of reasons, not least because it seems to directly contradict the wishes of students. In a recent survey, when asked how their tuition fees should be spent, students identified investment in teaching staff as a top priority. These figures show that staff are prioritised significantly less in the UK than in many other countries.

With Brexit fast approaching and some estimating that EU student numbers could fall by as much as 60% if they become subject to international fees, savvy international students will want to be sure that their tuition fees are being spent on the things they value most. If our neighbouring competitors in the EU are seen to be spending more on the frontline staff who provide students’ education, that could make coming to the UK a less attractive proposition.

Perhaps most importantly, though, the figures are significant because they speak to a broader issue about the value university leaders place on their workforce.

Staff have seen their pay decline by 21% since 2009. For several years, they have been told there’s no money for a decent pay rise, only to see the pay and perks of university vice-chancellors hitting the front pages as details emerged of grace-and-favour homes, bumper pay-offs and maxed-out expense accounts.

Universities have also refused to address the scourge of insecure contracts used to employ staff in our institutions, or make meaningful strides in tackling the gender pay gap or the stress brought about by high workloads.

This isn’t because universities have less money overall. In fact, while public investment in tertiary education has fallen sharply – it’s now the lowest in the OECD at 25% of total spending – universities’ total income has risen in recent years thanks to tuition fees.

Data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency shows that between 2009/10 and 2016/17, university income rose from £26.8bn to £34.5bn. Universities don’t have less to spend, they’re just choosing to invest less in their workforce.

The latest pay offer of 2% from the employers does nothing to reverse that trend or address the falling value of higher education pay.

In our increasingly competitive global higher education system, it’s vital that our universities aren’t seen to be skimping on their workforce. Universities are built on the work and expertise of their staff, and they should be the main focus for investment. Making that a reality starts with fair pay.

Source: The Guardian

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