In the 21st century, working in a university is a demanding and complex job. The expectations of academic staff are numerous. We are required to publish world-leading research outputs, and our outputs are subject to measurement by the Research Excellence Framework (REF). In order to publish those outputs we are required to secure finance to pay for our research, in a context in which research funding for education and social research has, over the past decade, been squeezed in comparison to the natural sciences (for a recent example of this funding differential see Overland & Sovacool, 2020). Journal paper submissions and grant applications are subject to rejection rates that typically exceed 80 per cent. We are required to deliver outstanding teaching at all times, and our teaching is measured according to an increasing number of metrics – national student surveys, external examiner scrutiny, internal university quality audits, module evaluations by students, peer review – all ratcheted up by the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF), another mechanism for regulating the work of professionals. As if world-leading research and teaching wasn’t enough, we are also increasingly required to generate additional income for universities through ‘enterprise’, not least because budgets in most university education departments are so tight. And, you’ve guessed it, the ‘KEF’ (Knowledge Exchange Framework) is just around the corner. Finally, all of our research must also demonstrate world-leading engagement and impact.
In the last 10 years or so it seems to me that two linked trends have worked together to create considerable disquiet among university academic staff.
- The trend of increasing performance pressures.
- The real-terms decline in pay.
Despite lower financial resource than those of many comparable nations, the UK’s university sector has impressive impact globally (Universities UK, 2018; Elsevier, 2016). And there are grounds for much more confidence in relation to education research specifically, as I argued in the paper that informed my presidential address (Wyse, 2020). However, even though quality and performance has improved, the performance-related increase in income that most people would expect in, for example, the private sector has not occurred. In fact, pay has declined in real terms over many years:
‘…when wages in 2013/2014, 2018/19, and 2019/20 are compared with wages on the same spine point in either 2008/09 or 2009/10 they are lower in real terms. For instance, the wages on spine points 11 through 51 in August 2018 are between 9.2% and 10.3% lower than they were in August 2008 in real terms.’
(Eyles, 2019, p. 1)
If the effective reduction in salaries wasn’t enough, there are many activities that academics carry out that are not remunerated: peer reviews of research papers for journals; editorships of journals; external examining of many kinds (which attracts what we might call ‘honoraria’ rather than costed day rates); reviewing professorial applicants for other universities; and of course the myriad of activities that our BERA members carry out in order to sustain education as an academic discipline and as the home of teacher education and training. I wonder how many businesses offer such ‘free labour’?
‘BERA’s concerns about members’ working conditions is one of the drivers for some significant new work and projects.’
BERA’s concerns about members’ working conditions is one of the drivers for some significant new work and projects. The first of these projects is a review of evidence to inform a survey of members’ working conditions: the tender to carry out this project is available here. If you care about these issues, and can meet the criteria, then we look forward to reading your application.
BERA’s formal position in relation to industrial action by unions representing academics in universities can be found here.
Elsevier (2016). International Comparative Performance of the UK Research Base 2016. London: Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy. Retrieved from https://www.elsevier.com/__data/assets/pdf_file/0018/507321/ELS-BEIS-Web.pdf
Eyles, A. (2019, October 10). Real Wage Changes on the JNCHES Pay Spine (Updated for August 2019 Inflation Release). London: Universities & Colleges Employers’ Association. Retrieved from https://www.ucea.ac.uk/library/stakeholder-briefings/newjnchespaypointsrealterms.pdf
Overland, I., & Sovacool, B. (2020). The misallocation of climate research funding. Energy Research and Social Science, 62, 1-13.
Universities UK (2018). Higher education research in facts and figures [spreadsheet presentation]. Retrieved from https://www.universitiesuk.ac.uk/research-facts-and-figures
Wyse, D. (2020). The academic discipline of education. Reciprocal relationships between practical knowledge and academic knowledge. British Educational Research Journal, 46(1), 6–25. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1002/berj.3597