University spending on agency staff soars to £200m

‘Casualisation is short sighted, bad for staff and bad for students’ says UNISON, as it reveals growing scale of the problem

The higher education sector “needs to get a grip” says UNISON, after revealing that universities spent £200m on agency staff in the financial year to August 2015 – 34% more than the year before.

The information comes after 133 universities responded to union freedom of information requests, including 45 universities who each spent £1m or more over the year in question.

Overall, the amount spent on agency staff in the sector has grown by 62% since 2011, while 8,415 support staff jobs are now on zero hours contracts.

“The sector needs to get a grip, identify where skills are lacking and have a coherent plan to deliver necessary skills through the recruitment and development of high quality, permanent staff,” commented UNISON national secretary Jon Richards.

“Casualisation is short sighted, bad for staff and bad for students – yet it appears to be endemic in some universities.”

He added that “students will be rightly appalled to see their exorbitant tuition fees wasted as a result of poor planning”.

UNISON is calling for a regular review of the need for and use of temporary staff in higher education.

The union points out that while temporary staff can be flexible and sometimes cost effective, they can cost twice as much as permanent staff.

And the valuable experience they gain is lost once the assignment ends.

On the other hand, staff who receive fair working conditions, with contracts that give stability and continuity of employment, are much more likely to provide a better service to students.

“The stress on staff of not knowing if they will have any work or income in the short term particularly hits low-paid staff, who can end up relying on food banks to support themselves when their salary stops,” said Mr Richards.

“Universities have been accruing billions in surpluses and appear to be opting for a whopping bank balance rather than a sustainable workforce.

“This increasing use of agency staff is a short-term fix, instead of the better use of existing staff resources such as internal secondments and filling jobs on a permanent basis.”