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Understanding the new tutor contract: C&C working groups

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Edited by Christopher Douce, Sunday, 18 Apr 2021, 15:06

The way in which associate lecturers are employed by the university is changing.

Tutors will be moving from a situation where they are employed on a ‘per module’ basis to a new type of contract where they are employed on a permanent basis.

The ‘per module’ contract currently lasts for the length of a module, which might be anything between 6 and 10 years (depending on the subject, and whether a module presentation is extended). When a module presentation comes to an end (and it is replaced by a new module) tutors have to reapply and be re-interviewed. All this takes a lot of time. 

A central tenet of the new contract is the idea of what tutors may be qualified to teach rather than a currently narrow definition of what they have specifically applied to teach. The new contract offers tutors increased security whilst also potentially providing greater flexibility for both the university and the university’s associate lecturers.

A really important question that needs to answered is: how might all this work? 

Unfortunately, such a simple question doesn’t have a simple answer. 

To help answer this question, a group of staff tutors in the School of Computing and Communications decided to create a set of small working groups to try to unpick the challenges of working with the new tutor contract. 

By way of further context, the role of ‘staff tutor’ refers to someone who will be looking after or line managing an associate lecturer. They will also be responsible for carrying out essential tasks, such as allocating workload (deciding which tutor carry out which tutoring task), running appraisals, planning tutorials and so on.

The informal working groups that were set up had the titles: organisation (how staff tutors should organise themselves to solve the problem), data and information (what staff tutors need to make decisions), managing supply and demand (what kind of reports about tutors or students are needed to help with planning), and culture (broader questions about who may have to be involved, and what needs to be done to make everything work). 

This document summarises some of the discussions that have emerged from all these groups. An important point is: we don’t have any answers, but the groups have helped us to understand more about some of the things that need to be understood, and some of the issues that need to be resolved.

Organisation

This working group was charged with understanding how staff tutors might practically organise themselves to make things work. 

At its most basic level, each tutor will have a percentage FTE (full time equivalent) which relates to the number of hours they are expected to work in a year. Staff tutor will have the task of ensuring that tutors are allocated work (and the work be different types of task) and they must also ensure that they are allocated the right amount of work.

Staff tutors have to manage dynamic situations: student numbers fluctuate between different years; sometimes they will be higher, sometimes they will be lower. Sometimes tutors resign, or retire, and sometimes they have to take time off due to illness.

An important question that staff tutors need to ask themselves are: how many people do you (generally) have to speak with to solve these kinds of problems, if you are dealing with a curriculum area? There needs to be a way to keep a track of available capacity (in terms of teaching resources or hours that can be allocated): how will staff tutors be able to do this?

To make everything work, the relationships between the staff tutors and the tutors will be really important. Also, continuity and consistency between years and presentations is also going to be important. There needs to be a way to keep records of who has been doing what, and over what period.

There’s an important question of how staff tutors might organise themselves to ensure that the communications that they have to be involved with is manageable. Should they organise themselves in terms of curriculum, or perhaps in terms of geography? One thought is to try to solve the general problem and then deal with exception cases. In the School of Computing and Communications, this might be the staff tutors who look after postgrad modules, or those who manage project modules. 

Data and Information

This group asked four key questions: (1) What information/data will we need to support the tasks we’ve identified? (2) What format do we need the data in? (3) When do we need the data?, and (4) What data is likely to be available?

In terms of the first question, what information and data is needed, this was split into three further groups: information about associate lecturers (qualifications, their full time equivalent, current workload tasks, desired FTE, areas of expertise, interest in additional duties, and recording of CPD), information about modules (who the current tutors are, what the predictions for the next presentation are) and finally, which tutors are available to complete certain tasks (and whether there was information that could help with the decision making about who to select, and in what order.

Regarding the question of ‘what format do we need the data in?’ a useful suggestion was the idea of a ‘school dashboard’ that could provide an overview of whether there are any recruitment, capacity or allocation issues. A school dashboard might also offer a summary of the CPD status of tutors. Perhaps there might also be a ‘cluster dashboard’ for staff tutors too.

As for when we need the data and information, there were a number of suggestions: a year in advance of the tutor student allocation, and in anticipation of any strategic changes to a programme, such as: when a module comes to an end, a new module starts, a new programme starts, or any other planned changes to a programme.

There is one specific example that is worth sharing.  The School of Computing and Communications has recently introduced a new cyber security programme. To plan for its introduction, it would be necessary to find out whether there are sufficient tutors with sufficient skills to tutor those modules. The accuracy of information is fundamental to long term strategic decisions about tutor capacity, as well as the per-presentation decision making and work allocation that staff tutors need to perform.

Managing Supply and Demand

The supply and demand group picks up from where the data and information group finishes. This group was asked to explore the management of available AL capacity to meet changing student demand and needs.  

Staff tutors emphasised the needs for a more robust and reliable student registration forecasting processes. An interesting suggestion was that any system could closely monitor the numbers of students who start level 1 modules, with a view to tracking how they move onto levels 2 and 3. There should ideally be a theoretical capacity buffer which could mitigate against potentially changing and challenging situations.

The problem could be understood in terms of pools: a supply pool (the available ALs), and the demand pool (students).

The allocation of work could be carried out in a number of steps, beginning with looking for the number of tutors needed and checking of skills that the tutors currently have (and facilitating staff development if necessary). This would be followed with allocation of long-term work, such as asking a tutor to teach on a a module (and allocating a number of students that matches with their FTE preference). If there was any spare FTE capacity, then additional duties (such as monitoring) could be allocated.

Another subject the supply and demand group explored was the issue of tutor recruitment. Under the new contract, a knowledge-based approach, based on groupings of modules or subject areas would be needed. A more detailed person specification would need to be created that goes above and beyond what is described in the person specifications for individual modules. All this would have to be negotiated by the union, include colleagues in AL services (who currently help to run the AL recruitment processes) and colleagues in people services.

Staff tutors can only do their job successfully if they are provided with accurate information. Colleagues from this group emphasised the need to identify trends. This means that staff tutors need to have accurate forecasting to ensure that their pool of associate lecturers (the supply side) is developed and supported as effectively as possible.

One of the conclusions from this group takes us directly to the discussions of the final group, the culture and change group: “for the long term it will also be essential to implement structural changes to our appointment, induction, training, support and staff development processes “

Culture and Change

This final group were asked to explore the extent to changes (particularly in terms of institutional culture and practices) that would need to be adopted (or adapted) to facilitate the implementation of the new tutor contract.

Put simply, the new tutor contract represents an inversion of how things are currently managed. At the moment, tutors are responsible for managing their own workload and their own continuing professional development. 

Under the terms of the new contract, it will be the staff tutors who will be responsible for the management of the workload of the tutors, and the staff tutors will be responsible for identify gaps in skills and capabilities and working with tutors to provide professional development to ensure that school (and university) objectives are met.

The relationship between the tutor and the staff tutors is going to change. Colleagues from this group explain the challenge quite succinctly: “we are moving from a volunteering for jobs situation to one in which we tell people what to do. So, the issue is what are the consequences when an AL says no! In this scenario, there is both a task issue, and a people-management issue.” The point here is that the role of the staff tutor will be changing. To facilitate that change it is also going to be important to consider what training and professional development needs to be carried out to enable staff tutors to comfortably complete their new job.

Like the previous group, this group discussed the subject of recruitment. It began to consider some scenarios which staff tutors may have to deal with, such as local issues such as last minute closure of tutorial venues, or surge in registration for certain modules.

Although staff tutors currently work in a collegiate and collaborative way, to make things work under the terms of the new contract, the extent of this collegiality may have to increase. Information about tutor capacity and tutor intentions will need to be shared between different staff tutors. Staff tutors may need to be organised in groups to make sure this information sharing is carried out efficiently.

It is also important to recognised that the change to the new terms of the contract will also impact on other key groups of staff; most significantly AL services (who have a key role in ensuring that groups are continued to be created), central academics, and the examinations teams.

Conclusions

The following points can be concluded from these discussions:

  1. Information is going to be fundamental to the implementation of the new tutor contract; information systems are needed.
  2. The information requirements of a system that will support the storage and discovery of information need to be established.
  3. Even if an information system is provided and developed, staff tutor communities across the university need to be empowered to make their own decisions about how to best organise themselves to facilitate collaboration with each other to ensure that workload is allocated and tutors are supported.
  4. The introduction of the new tutor contract will affect the roles of many staff groups in addition to staff tutors, such as: AL services, central academics, examinations, IT, and people services.
  5. All these stakeholder groups need to be engaged with the change, to gather requirements, and to facilitate understanding of those changes for the new tutor contract to be implemented.
  6. There needs to be a way to recruit new associate lecturers.
  7. There needs to be the definition of robust procedures that staff tutors can apply to resolve problems when they arise. 

Disclaimers

This summary doesn’t represent an officially negotiated or agreed position; it presents views that are entirely separate from any views held by university management or the union. This document emerged from discussions by staff tutor colleagues within the school of Computing and Communications who were asking the fundamental question: what do we have to do to make the new tutor contract work?

It is really important to recognise that different parts of the university may be very different to each other, particularly in terms of curriculum. In Computing and Communications the curriculum aligns neatly with the school, whereas in other parts of the university, some tutors might tutor on modules in different schools and in different faculties. This means that colleagues from different parts of the university may well have different requirements.

Acknowledgements

A significant number of staff tutors in C&C have played a role in these different working groups.  The organisation group was led by Matt Walkley and the contributors were Matthew Nelson and Mark Slaymaker. The data and information group was jointly led by David McDade and Anthony Johnston, with contributions from Sharon Dawes and Chris Douce. The supply and demand group was led and facilitated by Ray Corrigan with important contributions from Christine Gardner, Chris Thomson and Marina Carter. Finally, the culture change group was led by Steve Walker, with contributions from Alexis Lansbury, Andy Reed and Andy Hollyhead. This summary was compiled by Chris Douce from notes made during a presentation by all group leaders at regular C&C staff tutor meeting. 

Further information

This summary is related to an earlier event: New AL contract: Requirements workshop and C&C discussion, which took place in January 2019. Another meeting took place in early 2020.

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