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If student numbers are set to grow, then isn’t it about time we ensure we will have the staff to teach them?

  • 16 March 2018
  • By Diana Beech

A new report by the Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) reveals the number of students in higher education in England is set to grow dramatically over the coming decade. By looking at demography, participation rates and external policy developments, the report predicts that universities in England should be preparing for at least 300,000 additional full-time undergraduate places by 2030.

On first glance, this appears very good news for higher education institutions, with a large pool of prospective students waiting in the wings. Yet, increased student numbers will inevitably require more top-quality staff to teach them. So, surely we should be doing our utmost to keep as many early career academics in the profession now, so that they can go on to become the senior lecturers and professors of tomorrow?

Ensuring a healthy pipeline of teaching talent for the sector will not, however, be an easy task, given the high levels of dissatisfaction reported by today’s early career academics. In many ways, the recent disputes over pensions by academic staff across many UK universities represent just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the growing discontent experienced by early career researchers and lecturers.

Just last summer, British academic Michael Edwards put his decision to leave UK academia down to what he saw as long working hours, the loss of essential research periods, increased bureaucracy, diminishing budgets and reduced standards. And he is not alone in his disgruntlement. One survey of academics’ job satisfaction levels reveals academics in the UK to be the least happy out of academics in 19 different countries, with the lack of job security cited as their main source of stress.

Latest data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) exposes the prevalence of fixed-term contracts in UK universities. Among full-time staff who have teaching-only responsibilities, roughly one-fifth are employed on fixed-term contracts (21.3% of females and 19.2% of males). However, this number rises considerably among research-only staff, who are usually the post-docs and early career researchers that will go on to become the senior academics of tomorrow. Over two-thirds of full-time researchers in UK universities are employed on a fixed-term basis (67.2% of females and 66.8% of males), without any guarantee of job security once their current contracts or research grants come to an end.

Moreover, the University and College Union (UCU) has recently estimated – based on Freedom of Information requests – that UK higher education institutions could be using hourly-paid academics for between 15 and 40% of their undergraduate teaching. This number could be as high as 50% in some pre-92 institutions, suggesting many academics – usually at the early stages of their careers – could be working on insecure contracts which are preventing them from pursuing a future in the sector.

Poor pay is another concern for academics living and working in more expensive areas of the country, like Oxford and Cambridge, where academic salaries tend to be lower than average, yet house prices higher than average. This has left some academics with no hope of owning their own home and, in the best case scenario, searching for employment in other areas or countries where the costs of living are more manageable, and in the worst case scenario, looking for work in other industries or sectors.

The prospect of Brexit adds another layer of uncertainty to the already precarious academic career in the UK. Freedom of information requests submitted to 105 UK universities have shown that more than 2,300 university staff members from other EU countries resigned from their jobs in 2017, illustrating the damage being done by the lack of clarity on long-term career prospects and funding opportunities once the UK leaves the European Union.

To prevent further academic ‘brain drain’ and ensure UK universities have the academics they need to teach the undergraduates of tomorrow, now is the time that higher education institutions around the country think seriously about what they can do, not just to attract top-quality teaching talent into the sector but to retain it for the future. This means taking practical measures to give early career academics the crucial job security and funding prospects that could see them remain in the profession over the years ahead.

The key for many higher education institutions is to plan ahead and think long-term:

  • For universities employing early career academics on fixed-term contracts, this could mean ensuring employment contracts are valid for at least three years to minimise the churn of early career researchers and entice them to put down roots in the local area.
  • For institutions using a high number of hourly-paid teaching staff, there is a need to devise clear and realistic routes to career progression to enable high-quality teachers to obtain a more secure employment status within the sector.
  • For universities operating in high-cost areas of the country, it may be worth considering providing subsidised staff accommodation or offering a salary ‘top-up’ akin to the London weighting allowance paid to many workers in or around the London area.

Anecdotal evidence tells us that early career academics are likely to look favourably upon institutions which put their needs as human beings first. To win the loyalty of future generations of teaching staff, the onus is firmly on universities to provide young academics with reward and remuneration packages which show they are appreciated as ‘whole people’ – ensuring their pay is enough to live on and providing the time and space for them to excel in their research careers.

With an unprecedented growth spurt ahead of us in the undergraduate population, universities which make meeting the needs of early career academics a priority today will be best placed to capitalise on the increased demand for higher education we are projected see by the end of the next decade. In many ways, attracting greater numbers of students is going to be the easy bit; ensuring we have happy and contented staff to teach them is going to be the real challenge that will be best solved if we face up to it sooner rather than later.

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