Staff Casualisation and Student Satisfaction

A paper of mine, The Effect of Casual Teaching on Student Satisfaction: Evidence from the UK, has recently been published in Education Economics.

The paper evaluates the relationship between the proportion of university teaching conducted by individuals on a casual contract (*) and student satisfaction. This is of interest for a number of reasons. Firstly, because students are often seen as consumers in the UK’s higher education sector and often have to pay large fees to attend university. We should therefore hope that such consumers are satisfied with their purchase (in economic terms), or in other words, that students are satisfied with their uni experience. Secondly, there is some evidence that student satisfaction can affect effort – if students feel dissatisfied with their experience then they may put in less effort in their studies. This can have knock-on effects on outcomes in terms of how much knowledge they obtain (and reflected in the grades they obtain) and may affect the primary outcome of universities, which is to distil human capital and improve the knowledge stock in the economy. Thirdly, and most relevant to universities, there is evidence that student satisfaction plays a role in student demand, as students evaluate university league tables when deciding which university to attend (for which, satisfaction is a key input in rankings). This means that low student satisfaction could result in low university rankings and therefore low future student demand, with pernicious effects on financial stability for universities that employ a large proportion of staff on casual contracts. Finally, the relationship between casualisation and market outcomes (such as student satisfaction) is of relevance in markets outside the higher education sector, more generally. The results from this paper can therefore inform general policy on the desirability of casualisation and temporary employment.

Casualisation has been increasing across the western world, particularly in the higher education sector. This makes it a very important phenomenon to study. Unfortunately, there is often a lack of data to facilitate such evaluations. I use survey data (conducted by the University and College Union) on the proportion of undergraduate lessons taught by casual staff, to provide some evidence on casualisation. The survey indicates that, across the UK higher education sector, around 13% of teaching is conducted by casual staff, a not insignificant proportion. There is also some variability, with some subject-universities (i.e. a particular subject within a given university – the level of disaggregation in my dataset) not employing any causal staff and one employing up to 54%.

It is not immediately clear whether higher levels of casualisation ought to be bad or not. In a general setting, it can give workers and employers freedom in terms of labour supply and in the higher education sector, it could, hypothetically, have positive effects. For instance, PhD students might wish to be employed on casual contracts so that they can undertake some paid work, and gain teaching experience, whilst still pursuing their studies. Furthermore, students may actually prefer to be taught by PhD students (perhaps because they are younger and more fun!), in which case we might expect to see a positive relationship between student satisfaction and casualisation.

So what do the results say? I find evidence that higher levels of staff casualisation reduce student satisfaction. An increase in the proportion of teaching by casual staff is found to result in a decline in student satisfaction, with a one percentage point increase in the casual teaching proportion resulting in a 0.25 percentage point reduction in the probability that a student will be ‘very satisfied’ with their time at university. Instead, a higher proportion of teaching by casual staff means students are more likely to respond that they were only ‘fairly satisfied’ (increase of 0.12pp), ‘not very satisfied’ (increase of 0.10pp) and ‘not at all satisfied’ (increase of 0.03pp). These results are robust to changes in the number of staff/student responses in a university-subject pair and to the use of a multi-level model. There is some evidence of a threshold effect around levels of 8%, meaning that when casualisation is in the double-digits student satisfaction decreases, whilst at lower levels it is actually found that casualisation increases satisfaction.(**)

I hypothesise a few channels which may explain my key finding, such as (i) casual workers having less time to work with students, (ii) students want their teachers to be paid fairly, particularly given the amount students have to pay for their courses, and (iii) individuals who are employed on casual contracts are of a lower quality than permanent staff. Unfortunately, data prohibits an investigation of why casualisation affects student satisfaction and more research is needed to examine the mechanisms at play.

What does this mean for policymakers, particularly decision-makers at universities? It indicates that there are negative side effects, in terms of service quality, from the use of casual/temporary workers. In the higher education setting, lower student satisfaction is a bad thing in it’s own right but also has knock-on effects in terms of future demand for universities, given the role of student satisfaction in university league tables. This suggests a trade-off for university decision-makers, in that casualisation often allows for a reduction in costs but this might backfire if future student demand (income) falls. There is also evidence that student satisfaction plays a role in attainment and effort input, suggesting that lower satisfaction might affect grades and the human capital attainment of young individuals. Finally, there is existing evidence suggesting that casualisation has negative effects for the workforce in terms of income stability and mental and physical health and wellbeing. Outside the higher education setting, this new evidence might imply that customers see a fall in quality from the use of a temporary workforce and may act as a warning to business leaders that casualisation could come at the risk of quality (and potentially, therefore, affect demand).

You can read the paper here. An earlier blog post was published by HEPI here.


(*) A casual contract, is defined, in this paper as a situation where an individual is employed on an ‘as and when’ basis, which may or may not be renewed.

(**) I am not able to scientifically explain why this is but I suspect that low levels of casualisation occur when prestigious academics give guest lectures which are likely to be well received by students.

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