60% of UK academics set to quit within 5 years – Survey

Industrial disputes and ongoing strikes that have dragged on for years in universities in the United Kingdom have damaged morale among higher education staff – but even British academic union leader Dr Jo Grady was surprised by a survey of members which showed 60% of respondents likely to leave the sector within the next five years.

The figure was even higher among younger members of staff, aged between 18 and 29, with 81% saying they were likely to look for work elsewhere because of deteriorating pay and working conditions.

Among researchers, nearly three-quarters of respondents (74%) said they are likely, or very likely, to leave the sector in the next five years.

The findings appear in a new report from the University and College Union (UCU) titled UK Higher Education: A workforce in crisis. They are based on a survey of almost 7,000 university staff at over 100 UK higher education institutions, conducted from 25 February to 2 March, just days after employers in the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) pushed through cuts to pensions, which will come into force in April 2022.

A crisis of morale

Grady, the UCU general secretary, said she knew there was discontent, but the survey surprised her, and the findings should be a wake-up call to employers and government ministers.

“Staff are sounding the alarm about a crisis of morale and faith in UK universities that threatens the future of the entire sector. A decade of decline in working conditions, pay and pensions has left staff feeling totally demoralised and preparing to leave the sector in their thousands,” she said.

Grady claimed that by ignoring longstanding concerns, “vice-chancellors have cultivated a toxic working culture that has resulted in the youngest members of staff being the most likely to leave the sector in the next five years. This is a ticking time bomb, which could do untold damage to teaching and research in what is held up to be a world-renowned sector.”

The union is asking the parliamentary education select committee “to draw up plans for an inquiry into staff well-being in the sector” and to look at staff reports of “deep unease with university governance which has seen institutions grossly mismanaged and resources allocated poorly – all with a total lack of staff representation”.

Grady said: “We want governments in England, Wales and Northern Ireland to follow Scotland’s lead and put forward legislation that will properly democratise decision-making at universities, putting staff on boards and ensuring that decisions made in the future are for the benefit of the workforce and students.”

COVID increased workloads

Academics contacted by University World News, particularly those involved with international students, said the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic – which wasn’t particularly highlighted in the UCU report – had only increased workloads.

Dr Salim M Salim, associate professor and director of international partnerships in the faculty of science and engineering at Swansea University, Wales, said: “Additional entry points in the academic calendar, such as January starts to cater to international students as a result of ongoing travel restrictions, visa delays and other global issues, meant extra pressure on staff, who continued working above and beyond to deliver outstanding services with the same resources.”

Despite this, and the need to “adapt their pedagogical approaches and employ new technological tools overnight to shift delivery into a virtual environment”, staff had delivered and deserved credit for the UK higher education sector achieving its ambitious target of 600,000 international students a decade early.

UK’s reputation threatened

“However, this reputation as an education powerhouse and attractive destination for both study and work is threatened by the issues highlighted in the UCU report UK Higher Education: A workforce in crisis,” he said.

He was particularly concerned that four in five of the youngest staff, aged between 18 and 29, surveyed said they were considering leaving higher education in the next five years because of the workload, pay and casualisation.

“They are the future talent pipeline of the sector and the people that not only helped to keep the sector going during the pandemic but will also be instrumental in supporting the UK’s internationalisation ambitions, especially in the areas of customer care and employability.”

Salim told University World News: “There has been a marked increase in international postgraduate applications from markets that are traditionally all about value for money. This translates to increased pressure on university staff to ensure that these cohorts of students are getting what they signed up for and are satisfied with their time in the UK.

“So, in addition to addressing concerns around pension cuts, pay and inequalities, it is crucial that there is investment in resources, training and support to equip university staff to continue delivering excellent teaching, research and student support and experience in an ever-increasing competitive global market.”

‘Academics are feeling the strain’

Jasmine Gani, senior lecturer and associate professor in international relations at the University of St Andrews, Scotland, agreed and told University World News: “There is no doubt that UK academics are feeling the strain at the moment – from the intensity of workloads and the backlog of emergency responses during the pandemic.

“Increasingly we are seeing academics reconsidering their long-term futures – but particularly junior academics and those who are precarious.”

She spelt out what she sees as “a mounting crisis in the UK university sector relating to unequal pay, unsustainable workloads, job insecurity, decline in wages, and massive cuts to pensions” in a blog on her own website.

This considered “structural problems relating to the neoliberalisation of university education for over a decade” and how these “became acute during the pandemic, with workload expectations on staff reaching unacceptable levels”, with negative consequences for students.

Impact of pension cuts disputed

Looking at one of the main flash points – the cut to pensions made despite UCU opposition – sees its impact fiercely disputed, with the union claiming a typical lecturer, aged 37, will lose 35% from their guaranteed retirement benefits.

The vice-chancellors’ umbrella group, Universities UK, strongly refutes the UCU figures.

A spokesperson for Universities UK told University World News: “UCU’s use of a 35% reduction in benefits is misleading and irresponsible” and warned “it could lead to staff making life-changing decisions to opt out of a scheme which will shortly see employers paying 21.6% towards their retirement”.

Union fighting on four fronts

But the UCU is not just concerned about pensions. It is fighting university bosses on four fronts:

• Low pay, where it says salaries have fallen by 17.6% against inflation since 2009.

• The use of casualisation, with the union claiming 3,545 academic staff are on zero-hours contracts.

• Workload, with the UCU suggesting four in five higher education staff are struggling.

• Inequality, with the union claiming a pay gap of 15.1% between men and women in the sector and a 17% pay gap between black and white staff.

The unrest has seen thousands of university staff across the United Kingdom going on strike or taking other forms of industrial action in rolling protest action in recent weeks. Despite the disruption to their studies, the UCU claims most students support their stand.

So, the latest strikes should be seen as part of a long-running dispute with university employers, with UCU staff at universities all over the UK going on strike in two waves of action in 2019 and 2020, before the COVID-19 pandemic led to a suspension of industrial action.

Employers’ response

When asked to comment on the four issues the union is fighting about, apart from pensions, the Universities UK spokesperson referred University World News to the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA), whose website says it “provides its member institutions with timely advice and guidance on all employment and reward matters relevant to the HE sector”.

At UCEA, a spokesman declined to comment directly to University World News on the specific points in the union survey or the suggestion that about 60% of higher education staff are considering quitting academia, and referred us to previously reported comments about ongoing disputes made by Raj Jethwa, chief executive of UCEA.

He said: “It is time for UCU to consider their members by progressing the consistent offers that have been made by employers.

“These focus on taking concrete action and progressing joint working to address contractual concerns, workload issues and reduce the gender, ethnicity and disability pay gaps.

“With the 2022-23 trade unions’ initial pay claim submitted, UCU needs to allow its representatives to engage constructively in this year’s [2022-23] multi-employer negotiating round, which begins on Wednesday [30 March].”

Nic Mitchell is a UK-based freelance journalist and PR consultant specialising in European and international higher education. He blogs at www.delacourcommunications.com.