Lancaster cannot rule out further fee rise – while 47% of academics remain on “precarious” contracts

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Photograph: Bruce Adams

A Lancaster University spokesperson has said that the University is “not ruling out” a further increase in tuition fees while the lecturers’ union – University and College Union (UCU) – shares data to suggest that nearly half of staff at the University are on “casual contracts.”

Months after the Government announced plans to allow University tuition fees to rise to £9,250 for 2017 entry, Lancaster University is yet to announce whether fees will be raised. A University spokesperson told SCAN that “Lancaster is not ruling out inflationary increases in tuition fees for 2017 entry.”

“We are very much aware of the costs of investing in a degree at a leading UK university. We are confident that this investment has a strong and positive return for students and we have been working hard to ensure our graduates get good jobs that enable them to pursue their careers of choice when they leave Lancaster.”

The University of Central Lancashire, UCLAN, on the other hand, has already confirmed their intention to raise fees for 2017 entry – and is now listing higher fees on their online course pages.

The University of Cumbria, UCUM, has also confirmed their intention to raise fees for 2017 – while the University of York says that fees are “expected” to rise to £9,250.

Course pages on the Lancaster University website tells prospective students that: “the 2017 entry fees have not yet been set.”

Speaking on behalf of LUSU, VP (Education) Nick Dearman told SCAN: “We have made it clear to the university that we are vehemently opposed to any increase in fees.”

“Fee increases are only one part of the biggest changes to higher education in a decade and we are dedicated to informing our students about everything that is going through parliament at the moment throughout the first term.”

The lecturers’ union, UCU, have also expressed their opposition to the increased fees. In July of this year the leader of UCU, Sally Hunt, told the BBC: “Those universities foolish enough to advertise higher fees will be doing nothing to quell concerns from students and parents that they are simply after as much cash as they can get.”

Indeed, a UCU spokesperson told SCAN that an increase in tuition fees is unlikely to equate to an increase in staff pay, saying that “increased fees should not be interpreted as an increase in pay for staff.”

“Since 2010 the amount spent on staff by universities as a percentage of total income has dropped by 3%. However, the total of cash reserves has rocketed by 72% to stand at over £21bn.”

At this time, according to UCU, 49.7% of Lancaster University staff are on ‘casual contracts’. Calling that figure “too many”, the UCU website says staff on these contracts have “little job security, are not being paid what they deserve and their career progression is severely hampered.”

However the Lancaster University spokesperson says that the UCU report has included figures that “distort the real picture relating to our core workforce.”

The University states that their internally run temporary employment service (ERS – Employment and Recruitment Service) creates “valuable casual employment opportunities” for students and members of the local community. They also say 121 workers registered as “casual staff” are postgraduate students, which “assists their studies.”

They also claim that fixed-term contracts (that is, a contract which has a definitive end date or terminates after a specific event) are “only used where strictly necessary”.

The University spokesperson explained that “under 20% of staff are on fixed-term contracts”, and for the roles of lecturer, senior lecturer, reader and professor “just 6% are on fixed-term contracts at Lancaster.”

However, fixed-term contracts are just one form of ‘casual contract’. In a 2016 report, UCU listed a number of contracts that they considered “precarious” – including: zero-hours contracts (where the employer has no obligation to provide minimum working hours), variable hours contracts (where hours vary over time) and hourly-paid contracts (where workers are paid for each hour they work).

The issue of “Casual Contracts” is not the only issue being raised by UCU. The union has also shared data that states that female University staff are paid 9.4% less than male staff. This equates to £4,519 less per year. In a flyer, UCU called gender pay gaps “shameful”.

Lancaster University explains this pay gap, stating: “There are fewer female (24%) than male professors, for example, and the lower-level administrative roles are mainly (around 80%) held by women” – going on to describe how the University will seek to attract more female applicants to senior and academic positions to fix the issue.

Yet data featured in a March 2016 report released by UCU states that women in academic-related positions at Lancaster University are still paid an average of 6.9% less than men in academic positions – equating to £3,355.

In protest at the high numbers of staff on casual contracts, the gender pay gap and a pay dispute – members of the UCU at Lancaster have been “working to contract” since May 2016. Their website explains that this means “they will refuse to work overtime, set additional work or undertake any voluntary duties like covering timetabled classes for absent colleagues”. The union also held a local strike during the University’s summer open day: with members handing out flyers in Alexandra Square. Similar action has taken place nationally, at other Universities and colleges.

Dearman told SCAN: “Since taking office we have opened productive dialogue with Lancaster’s UCU representatives, with discussions covering a wide range of issues. We stand in solidarity with them over changes to higher education.”