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We need to talk about staff retention in the sector

  • 28 November 2023
  • By Leo Hanna
  • This blog was kindly contributed by Leo Hanna, Executive Vice President at TechnologyOne

Universities are in a difficult spot. Demand for higher education is high, with more and more young people seeing the value of a university education, which is obviously great news for the sector. On the other hand, we’re hearing from university leaders that there are fewer and fewer staff around to provide the quality experience that students deserve. Anecdotally, some VCs tell us certain roles, particularly technical ones, are very difficult to recruit for in certain regions.

So we decided to take a look at the data to further understand the issue. Is the industry really worse off than a few years ago, or is this pressure a symptom of evolving times, of the constant striving for growth and of the industry’s need to do more with less? We reviewed data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) and the Office for National Statistics (ONS), looking at employment figures between 2014/15 and 2021/22.

We then used this research to examine how staff numbers – both academic and non-academic – have either increased or decreased within that time frame across specific universities. We then grouped the data to enable us to calculate an average student:staff ratio for a range of university mission groups from 2014/15 to 2021/22. A table of the full calculations is included at the bottom of this piece.   

The findings were rather sobering. Some 15,000 UK academics have left the industry since 2014, while the number of students has increased by more than 400,000, pushing up student-staff ratios drastically. This is a particular challenge for newer institutions, such as further education colleges that deliver higher education. Members of the GuildHE group have seen their student-staff ratio double, from 8.3 to 17 between 2014 and 2021. Similarly, the ratio among the MillionPlus group of modern universities (largely granted university status in the 1990s or later) has increased by a third over the same period. In contrast, the student-staff ratio at research-intensive Russell Group universities has only widened incrementally from 4 to 4.7. This perhaps comes as no surprise given those universities’ finances traditionally benefit from substantial endowments, strong research programs, and successful fundraising efforts.

UCAS predicts the sector will see one million applicants by 2028, compared to a little over 750,000 in 2022 – rising by a third in six years, which means university students paying thousands a year for their education will continue to see their classes increasingly crowded amid an exodus of academic staff.

And while the impact of increased student-staff ratios obviously varies depending on the course and how it is delivered, the measure is used as a broad guideline by many public, statutory, and regulatory bodies in terms of monitoring universities’ performance, as well as by a number of league tables for rating higher education institutions.

The fact is: universities across the board have to contend with less staff overall. Academics are being forced out of the industry as a result of pay and pensions that have failed to keep up with the cost of living. Further analysis of ONS earnings and inflation data indicates real wages have fallen by almost 30 per cent since 2014. But other factors are relevant too. Many universities we speak with are feeling understaffed, underfunded and under-resourced, and the need to find new ways of working and modernise their systems has never been more evident. Organisations in other sectors, such as local government and health services, have tackled similar capacity issues by adopting digital solutions, using data and technology to boost capacity despite a shrinking workforce.

Great technology not only helps universities do more with less, but is also a key significant strategy to retain staff, ensuring they are not bogged down by menial tasks and instead focussing on meaningful work.

Moving away from ageing legacy systems onto a modern technology platform can be part of the answer. Connected systems that leverage automation for example can reduce a university’s administrative burden, while delivering engaging experience for students, taking some pressure off overworked staff members.

TechnologyOne’s student-centric, end-to-end ERP SaaS solution for Higher Education for example is used by more than 50 per cent of the UK’s universities, Including the London Business School, the London School of Economics, and the University of Exeter.

The UK’s higher education sector is one of the greatest in the world. Amid difficult economic conditions, universities need to be radical with their solutions to maintain that position.

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  1. Nunya bisnis says:

    Did this analysis take into account the change in coverage of the HESA staff return so non academic staff became optional?

  2. Ros Lucas says:

    Time to rethink learning/teaching strategies and looking at how Apprenticeship learning can be incorporated with reduced hours at University and two or more days at work. This might lower fees but increase student take up…
    This may well mean a universal change from student/lecturer face to face, using residentials and small tutoring groups (Oxbridge style) with more independent learning involved

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