Staff numbers and staff stress are major issues that go a long way to explaining the quality of teaching on our courses. This post demonstrates that the situation that we find ourselves in currently with regard to staff numbers and stress levels is damaging the quality of our courses.
Staff, both academic and administrative, are the most important thing in determining the quality of university education as the number and quality of staff directly translates into nearly all of students’ concerns. The quality of teaching, the speed and quality of feedback on assessment, the quality of visa advice, the number of contact hours, the reputation of the department, the opportunities for academic development, the amount of module choice, administrative efficiency and reliability, academic support, welfare support, careers support and a huge number of other issues are directly related to the number of staff.
In 10 years the proportion of money the university spends on staff as a percentage of its turnover has dropped from 58.8% to 52.5%. This means that £29.3 million less is being spent on staff per year, than would have been if the ratio had been maintained over this period. To put this into context this money would be enough to pay for 2505 band 100 (junior) support staff, 1423 band 500 (senior) administrative staff 1195 grade 6 (junior) academics, or 644 grade 9 (senior) academics. It would also stretch to 70 Vice Chancellors or even Wolverhampton wanderer’s premier league squad for the 2009/10 season. The effects of this reduction in the money spent on staff are exacerbated by large increases in pay at the top that further reduce the amount of staff carrying out the university’s core function.
This pattern is worryingly repeated in the available data on academic student ratios. The University of Birmingham comes 77th overall in the QS world university rankings, however in the part of the table dedicated to faculty student ratios (the ratio of students per academic staff member) the University of Birmingham is 249th. The QS recognizes the importance of academic student ratios and so uses this measure as an analogue for quality of education. In a table primarily geared (60%) to determining universities’ academic reputation; 20% of the weighting in the makeup of their final score is dedicated to the number of students per academic.
The huge decline in the proportion of their income that Birmingham is allocating to staff as well as their faculty student indicator of 50.1 and position of 249th are extremely disappointing considering the Universities wealth, established nature and reputation. It means that the quality of education at Birmingham is significantly worse than it should be.
There has been a lot of research showing a negative relationship between workplace stress and performance at work, particularly in highly skilled workers. Students have a huge personal incentive to try and reduce staff levels of stress because they are negatively impacting the quality our education. Stress levels at Birmingham are far too high, partly because of the reduction in numbers mentioned above and a corresponding increase of targets and workload but also because of heavy handed authoritarian management.
Every year the UCU (union representing academics) does a survey of academic levels of stress. In general wealthy, established and research focused universities have lower levels of academic stress, however Birmingham bucks the trend. Birmingham is one of only two Russell Group universities in the bottom 20 for stress levels. On an indicator of stress ranging from 1 (most stressed) to 5 (least stressed) Birmingham scores between 2.16 and 2.41; the national average for all workers is 3.58. 88% of academics at Birmingham work more than 40 hours a week and 44% work more than 50 hours a week (the most in the Russell group).
Birmingham is the 4th highest university in the country for employment tribunal claims (when workers feel that their employer has acted against employment law) and the second highest university in the country for settling these claims with Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDAs). This means that the case is settled out of court with the clause that both parties agree to keep the matter secret. Support staff- some on as little as £13,000 a year- were recently told that overtime would no longer be paid and that working on bank holidays and weekends would be compulsory. The UCU has accused the University of introducing a performance management regime without clear terms or consultation across the university and that the lack of clarity is being used by some heads of school to settle personal or academic disagreements.
High levels of staff stress and the authoritarian way that this university is managed is confirmed continually to me by information that I gain in my role. Whether it is multiple reports of departments at the university losing the majority or their staff in a few years, employees showing signs of depression and anxiety due to work related stress, jobs not getting done because the staff don’t have time to do them or even being told by managers in meetings that the way to get things done was to “bully” staff and threaten to nail their heads to the table.
Not enough staff that are put under too much pressure is the cause of far too many problems at this university. There is a struggle going on over where the University’s money is spent; and the guild and the student body need to be absolutely clear which side we’re on. We need to be organising in our departments to make sure that the money we put in to the university is being spent on our education.
 accounts for 2000/01 http://www.birmingham.ac.uk/Documents/university/accounts/accounts2001.pdf; Accounts for 2010/11 http://www.birmingham.ac.uk/Documents/university/accounts/Accounts201011.pdf