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In the news 29 March 2019

29 March 2019

Confused message from government calling for better teaching but not improved grades

There was another weekend attack on universities from the government on Sunday including yet more threats from the Office for Students (OfS) to use its powers to clamp down on something. This week it was grade inflation that was under attack as the government set out a confusing message about how it is striving to improve teaching, but does not want that to lead to students getting better marks.

Education secretary Damian Hinds told the Observer that he expected the OfS to challenge institutions that record an unjustifiable rise in the proportion of top degrees being awarded. The OfS has stated that if universities do not take action it will use its powers to "drive change".

This is the same OfS that UCU called a "paper tiger" last month for failing to deal with senior pay and perks scandals and that Research Fortnight was quick to point out has threatened to almost intervene on a host of issues.


The reality of academic life

Writing in today's Times, the paper's deputy books editor James Marriot laments the reality of life academic life, especially for those just starting out. He says the outdated myth of a cushy academic life has proved surprisingly durable, but the miserable reality was brought into focus by a job advertised by Wadham College, Oxford.

He says posts like this with low pay, a long list of tasks and the expectation to do research in any spare time are bad news for academics, but also bad for students who pay a lot of money to go to university and deserve the full attention of their teachers.

He points out that young researchers are unlikely to do their best scholarly work if they're doing it in their own time, on poor pay and fretting about where next month's rent will come from. He says the abysmal pay and conditions imposed on young academics is an indictment of the low value Britain places on scholarship, on deep thinking and on culture, and that the bright young people pushing the boundaries of knowledge deserve better.


EU academics and the Brexit brain drain

The Guardian has spoken to a number of EU academics who are quitting the UK because of Brexit and says universities in mainland Europe are stepping up their approaches to talented European staff based in the UK. Vera Troeger, professor of quantitative political economy at Warwick University and an expert on the gender pay gap says she has had enough, and is leaving the UK after 14 years. She says she loves Warwick, but, after more than two years of uncertainty, other European colleagues are also preparing to go.

Jurriaan Ton, a Dutch professor of plant science at Sheffield says he finds Brexit "unbearable". He said: 'My partner is Irish, my son has a Yorkshire accent and I put vinegar on my chips. I love Sheffield and consider myself more British than Dutch now, but I will have to consider applying for another ERC grant at another European university if the alternative is trying to continue my research in a post-Brexit wasteland.'

Orazio Attanasio, an Italian professor of economics at UCL who has been in the UK for 22 years, has accepted a position at Yale, with Brexit helping swing his decision. In 2016 he was awarded the prestigious Klaus J Jacobs research prize for the use of economic models to shape child development programmes in poor countries. He said: 'It's been two years now and still no one knows what Brexit means. That is incredibly frustrating. I think if there isn't a deal it is a reasonable assumption that a lot of European academics will decide to leave.'


Anger at job loss plans for Knowsley and St Helens colleges

UCU has reacted angrily to news of plans to axe 65 staff at SK College Group. The proposed job losses come just a year after 85 posts went at the college's sites in Knowsley and St Helens. SK College Group was created in December 2017 following a merger between St Helens College and Knowsley Community College that was supposed to bring stability. At the time of the merger SK College Group said it would ensure the colleges can "continue to deliver a broad and diverse, high quality, relevant curriculum and qualifications". 

Speaking to Tes, UCU regional official Martyn Moss said: 'Less than 18 months on from a merger the college said would bring stability it has announced a second round of job losses. Cuts of this magnitude would have a serious impact on the college's ability to deliver educational opportunities for students in the region. Government cuts to further education are a disgrace, especially at a time when we should be investing in the skills the country needs, but that doesn't excuse knee-jerk cuts from colleges. The uncertainty hanging over staff and students is incredibly worrying and we will be fighting against compulsory job losses and increases in workloads.'


More jobs at risk at Bradford College

Twelve more jobs are at risk at Bradford College after the college announced plans to cut staff in its senior leadership team this week. The college was under fire last week for refusing to speak to UCU ahead of a third wave of strikes there this academic year. So far staff have taken seven days of strikes in their fight for fair pay.

Speaking about the cuts to the Telegraph and Argus, a UCU spokesperson said: 'Job losses are never something to be celebrated and these latest cuts will do nothing to lift moral at the college. Staff there have already suffered restructures and job losses and continue to face attacks on their pay and conditions. The college's refusal to even hold talks ahead of last week's latest solid strike action sent a terrible message to staff and students about where the college's priorities lie.'


£1m bill for consultants and interim staff at London college

Kensington and Chelsea College spent almost £1 million on consultants, people on fixed-term contracts and interim staff in a single year. The costs include the £143,000 paid to the college's interim principal Elaine McMahon during her seven-month stint at the helm - had she stayed a year, her pay would have been £245,142.

A proposed merger between Kensington and Chelsea College with neighbouring Ealing, Hammersmith and West London College was called off two weeks before it was due to go ahead in January 2018.

Speaking to Tes, UCU said the scale of spending on consultancy and interim staff was astonishing, particularly as the merger was eventually scrapped. A spokesperson said: 'Money spent on excessive leadership pay and external consultants could been more usefully employed to support learners and improve staff pay, and governors must ensure that future spending decisions put the interests of students first.'


University of Bath under fire for £16,000 portrait of pay and perks vice-chancellor

The Times has picked up on a story in the Bath student magazine Bath Time about the university's £16,000 bill for a painting of its former vice-chancellor who resigned following a series of stories about her pay and perks.

The paper says the oil painting of Dame Glynis Breakwell and its accompanying plaque have been mysteriously removed from alongside the paintings of other former vice-chancellors, according to the student magazine Bath Time.

The Earl of Wessex unveiled the painting on February 25. A freedom of information request sent to the university by the student magazine disclosed that the work and its frame cost £16,398. The plaque labelling the painting cost the university an extra £462, and the unveiling event cost £750, the same request found.


Last updated: 3 June 2019