Alastair Sim: Life as an academic

Scotland’s higher education sector already has it right on democratic approach to management/union relations, writes Alastair Sim.

I was surprised to read the results of a YouGov poll last month that found more people across Britain wanted to be a university academic than a TV presenter, interior designer or Hollywood star. The role of academic was the third most popular out of 31 occupations. It was beaten only by author and librarian, which led the report to suggest it was the thought of a “quiet intellectual life” that appealed to people.

Quiet is probably one of the last words that academics in our universities today would use to describe their job. Whether working in an academic, professional or support role university staff face the same high expectations, pressures and demanding schedule as most other professions. Universities – and so their staff – face a demanding set of expectations from students (fee-paying or not), from businesses, their communities, government, charity and other investors. It’s not an easy role.

This being the case, it’s probably more surprising that satisfaction levels are so high among university employees. More than 80 per cent of staff polled last year said their job was a source of satisfaction and close to three-quarters said they found it rewarding.

There has been a lot of focus in recent months on the fair work agenda in Scotland with the creation of a Cabinet secretary for fair work, skills and training and the publication of the Working Together report on workplace relations. Higher education institutions are well-placed when it comes to this agenda, if not ahead of many sections of our economy, and that is probably no small contributing factor to high levels of staff satisfaction.

Many of the recommendations in Jim Mather’s Working Together review are already standard practice within the sector. He wanted an increase in workplace democracy with worker membership on boards. This is the case for every university as academic and non-academic staff sit on the governing body, elected by their peers. The second most powerful body within a university is that of the academic board or senate which regulates teaching and research matters. This gives the academic community a strong, democratic voice.

The report also called for greater value to be placed on partnership between management and unions. Again, this is well-established with joint negotiating committees between university management and unions representing 27 per cent of university staff. Working Together also favoured industry-wide collective bargaining. Every UK university is involved in annual collective pay bargaining which last year saw staff awarded a 2 per cent rise.

We are confident that close to 100 per cent of staff working across the university sector, covered by collective pay arrangements and working a 35-hour week, is at or above the living wage. The sector has taken action, such as in 2014-15, to “bottom-weight” the pay deal so that the hourly rate equivalent for someone on the lowest pay spine point and working 35 hours a week came into line with the living wage. We are also considering what further, sustainable, action we might be able to take. A commitment has already been made that the new rate of living wage for 2015-16, announced last November, will be part of the discussions for the 2015-16 pay settlement.

Flexible contracts are in use where this makes sense for the employer and employee. Student shifts at ad hoc university events or guest lecturers from business and industry coming to share their practical experience as part of the teaching programme would be examples of where these kind of contracts serve a purpose. But no university in Scotland makes use of exploitative contracts which keep people “on call” for speculative work or apply exclusivity clauses so staff are unable to take employment elsewhere. University management has also agreed on joint work with the unions to define the appropriate use of flexible contracts.

Scotland’s 19 higher education institutions employ close to 40,000 people. Inevitably within a workforce of that scale there are issues of contention and dissatisfaction. For a sector that exists to encourage freedom of thought and critical thinking it is no surprise that staff take different views to that of management on some issues. However, we have the mechanisms to address those issues and discuss our disagreements constructively with staff in an open and robust form whether that’s in the joint negotiating committees with unions, at senate meetings or at the very highest level in the governing body. Working as an academic is a popular and challenging choice of career. Let’s work together to keep improving its satisfaction.

Alastair Sim, Director, Universities Scotland

This piece originally appeared in The Scotsman on Wednesday 25 March 2015 titled ‘Academic work more than satisfactory’.