November 20, 2016, by Charlotte Anscombe

Guardian story on casualisation in HE – a response

An article published in The Guardian online on Wednesday 16th November claimed to reflect the reality of employment practices in UK higher education, and specifically in the Russell Group. It made claims relating to the use of fixed-term contracts at a number of other universities.

The story included a case study about two individuals who said they had worked at the University of Nottingham, giving this University a prominence in the story that was unwarranted, unbalanced and unfair. The Guardian also made extensive use of figures provided to them by the University and College Union (UCU), which is running a campaign against casualisation and is organising a national demonstration on the issue.

The article was misleading and inaccurate. Analysis of the data was seriously flawed – and it was this flawed data on which the story was contrived.

This is because the Guardian used a calculation based on the number of contracts – effectively a ‘headcount’ – rather than a full-time equivalent (FTE) figure for the amount of teaching and research delivered. Using headcount rather than FTEs massively distorts the overall picture (see table below), because a large number of contracts are for a very small number of hours (it is also likely that over the course of a year, some individuals will hold more than one short-term contract).

This is why the Guardian claimed that almost half of Nottingham teaching and teaching-and-research staff are on temporary or ‘atypical’ contracts.

In fact, this figure is 10.33%.

Using the HESA data for 2014/15, looking at ‘Atypical’ contracts (i.e. casual workers) and Fixed Term Contracts (FTCs) for those doing teaching and teaching-and-research, as per the definition in the second table in the Guardian article (i.e. excluding research-only staff), these are the actual figures for Nottingham:

Contracts FTE
FTC & Atypical – R&T (excluding Research) 2285 224.2
All contracts & Atypical – R&T (excl R) 4450 2170.2
Percentage (%) 51.35% 10.33%


Using contracts as a measure, as the Guardian did, gives a very misleading picture of the student experience. Using a full-time equivalent measure – counting FTEs, rather than contracts – gives a much more accurate picture of who is delivering teaching to students.

Following the Guardian article, HESA (the Higher Education Statistics Agency) took the highly unusual step of publishing a statement explaining why conflating atypical and fixed-term contracts does not work – because the two sets of figures are not comparable.

Looking at academic staff on ‘atypical’ contracts only, as a percentage of all academic staff at Nottingham, the figures are as follows:

Contracts FTE
Academic* Atypical Total 2466 146.6
Academic* Grand Total 4004 3187.1
Percentage (%) 61.59% 4.60%

*Academic refers to staff on Research only, Teaching only and Research & Teaching focused roles.

So ‘atypical’ academic staff actually make up 4.6% of the full-time academic workforce at The University of Nottingham.

This is actually slightly higher than the sector average of 3.1% (Universities and Colleges Employers’ Association data), which reflects Nottingham’s research intensity. The Russell Group as a whole is research-driven, so its members have more fixed-term funding attached to research grants. This is one reason why Nottingham – and the Russell Group as a whole – is above the sector average in terms of numbers of fixed-term staff.

This not to say the case studies of the two individuals who said they worked at the University and feature in the Guardian article were not concerning. They were. But they were also completely unrepresentative of working life at The University of Nottingham, which is an enlightened and progressive employer offering a wide range of benefits, excellent pay, terms and conditions, to more than 7,700 members of staff. Working practices at this University are a world away from those at Sports Direct, as described in this recent Enquiry by the BIS Committee.

Staff welfare is, of course, a priority and is always taken into account when contracts and terms of employment are offered. However, the fact remains that universities require levels of flexibility that reflect changes in student enrolment, popularity of courses and the expansion of research projects.

To claim all staff involved in teaching through atypical or fixed term contracts are on the so-called ‘zero-hours’ contracts is wilfully misleading. Visiting lecturers, expert consultants or industry professionals who add greatly to the research-led teaching at our university would be on such contracts. These additional voices in our university provide insight that students value highly, but would not wish to take on full-time typical contracts within a higher education institution.

The University is taking up its concerns directly with The Guardian.

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