The Nuffield Foundation, alongside the King's College London Policy Institute, has published a report which explores new staffing patterns in UK higher education. The report was written by Baroness Wolf and Sir Roy Griffiths, professor of public sector management at King’s College London and skills and workforce policy adviser in the Number 10 Policy Unit, alongside Andrew Jenkins, an associate professor in the UCL Social Research Institute. Its findings are based on analysis of Higher Education Statistics Agency data on staffing at 117 universities (excluding small and specialist providers), plus case studies of six institutions, including two Scottish and four English institutions.
The full report can be found here.
- The number of professional staff employed by universities included in the study grew by 16 per cent between 2005-06 and 2017-18. The largest absolute growth was in the numbers of managers and non-academic professionals, which expanded from 32,000 to 51,000, an increase of about 60 per cent (p25).
- Associate professional level employees dealing with the “student experience”, including welfare workers and career advisers, more than doubled their numbers, from 7,485 to 15,467, to comprise 7.7 per cent of all support staff. Staff in media, public relations, marketing and artistic and sports occupations also more than doubled from 4,250 to 10,231 (p27).
- There has been a growing preoccupation with improving student services in an effort to boost student satisfaction ratings. A potential for improvement in the ‘student experience’ was often used as justification for new professional services jobs (p4).
- Ongoing centralisation of professional services was a strong theme across the case study institutions. Approval of academic posts was also highly and increasingly centralised (p4).
- In the case of senior professional service posts, senior leadership teams’ lack of expertise on professional service matters meant that justifications for these roles tended not to be challenged. This was in sharp contrast to the situation with academic posts, where scrutiny was extensive (p4).
- Teaching-only staff numbers rose by more than 80 per cent between 2005-06 and 2018-19 to almost 55,000, about five times the 16 per cent increase for ‘traditional’ teaching and research staff (p5).
- Numbers of teaching-only staff grew fastest at universities expanding their student enrolment most rapidly. More than half the growth – 14,000 from a total increase of about 25,000 – occurred within Russell Group universities (p5).
- There was no evidence of any deliberate strategy of re-balancing the academic workforce; growth occurred in a more haphazard way (p5).
- In research intensive universities, teaching-only appointments were put in place to allow permanent staff to concentrate on research (or taking up their entitlement to regular sabbaticals), given universities focus on research rankings and optimising performance in the government’s ‘Research Excellence Framework’ (REF) review (p5).
- When academic posts were not filled, or not approved, continuing growth in student numbers ensured that short-term staff, often on teaching only contracts, were appointed instead (p5).
Implications for governance
Staff salaries and benefits account for the largest share of ongoing expenditure across universities, which makes workforce planning and strategy a key concern for governing bodies. With industrial action currently taking place at many universities over pay and pensions, the report is timely as it highlights related issues such as perceptions and realities of workloads, the casualisation of staff, and terms and conditions of employment. Governing bodies need to understand more about the wellbeing and changing nature of their workforces to be delivering their strategy and values well.
The report covers how changing higher education priorities are reflected in the overall patterns of staffing, but implies that the direction of travel – towards more non-academic professional staff and teaching-only academic staff – is not necessarily a result of clear strategic thinking or necessarily desirable. As a result it warns that “internal organisation and governance of our universities requires some quite urgent attention”.
The movement towards more senior managers and non-academic professional staff reflects, to some degree, external demands, such as the growth in student numbers, competition for students and the regulatory landscape, as well as an increasingly expanded reading of what “student experience” is and should be.
Given the growth in student numbers in the years covered by the report, a 16 per cent overall rise in professional staff might seem appropriate. Higher growth in staff numbers in various subgroups, such as marketing and student welfare, are off-set to some extent by a halving of the number of secretaries, typists, receptionists and telephonists from 17,545 to 8,258, for instance.
However, the report suggests that there is too little scrutiny of these appointments, unlike the attention devoted to academic posts. It highlights a “growing preoccupation” with student satisfaction rates and claims that the catch-all of “the student experience” is used as a general justification for burgeoning numbers of student services jobs.
The report also points to an ongoing centralisation of professional services and identifies a lack of expertise across senior leadership of professional service matters, with the implication that posts are being created without sufficient justification.
Academic appointments too are becoming increasingly centralised, the report says, with decision-making taken away from departments/faculties.
Despite this centralisation, the growth in teaching-only staff seems to lack strategic direction and is more a consequence of haphazard decisions driven by the need to fill gaps left by unfilled posts or academics focusing on research and the demands of the REF.
This growth in teaching-only contracts, often part-time and insecure, can potentially have knock-on effects for quality, operational efficiency, union relations and reputation.
The changing institutional balance of teaching-only versus ‘traditional’ permanent academic jobs may also be of interest to governing bodies. In some universities, such considerations have led to improved working conditions, promotional pathways for those on teaching-only contracts, as well as better opportunities for moving to ‘teaching and research’ contracts. The authors say that these changes are likely to be of “direct and fairly immediate benefit” to students and the quality of teaching and learning.
According to the report, attempts in recent decades to make universities more efficient and effective by making governance more business-like, with clear lines of accountability and more outside appointments to governing bodies, have not been entirely successful. At the same time it acknowledges that increased government regulation and large-scale global competition for students are driving trends and make it unlikely that “the clock can be turned back”.
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