Support staff numbers cut at half of UK universities

Some institutions lost about a tenth of their non-academic workforce in main year of pandemic

三月 16, 2022
Source: Alamy

Support staff numbers dropped at about half of UK universities last year in the midst of the pandemic, with some losing about a tenth of their non-academic workforce, latest data suggest.

Figures on full-time equivalent (FTE) staff numbers from the Higher Education Statistics Agency show that out of 130 institutions that provided data, 66 saw a fall in non-academic staff.

There had already been warnings that many universities were looking at reducing professional service staff numbers as a way to keep a tight rein on spending during the Covid crisis.

The Hesa data now confirm this was the case, with hundreds of roles, mainly in professional service and technical areas, being lost from 2019-20 to 2020-21.

Support staff numbers were between 1 and 5 per cent lower at most institutions with a drop, but at about 20 universities the loss of roles was higher and three institutions recorded a fall above 10 per cent.  

For instance, Solent University – which took action in 2020 in a bid to safeguard its finances – saw its FTE support staff cohort fall 15 per cent to just under 400 in 2020-21, a figure 43 per cent below its peak non-academic employment in 2016-17.

Among the largest institutions, the University of Manchester had the biggest decrease in support staff numbers, with almost 500 fewer FTE staff in 2020-21 compared with the year before, a fall of 9 per cent.

About 150 of these were administrative or secretarial roles, a similar number were in “associate professional and technical” roles and about 100 were in professional services.

As Times Higher Education has previously reported, Manchester spent £37 million on severance payments in 2019-20, the most of any institution in the sector.

Union leaders have previously warned that cutting support roles would ultimately affect academics too by increasing their workloads.

Ruth Levin, senior national education officer at the Unison union, said it was “foolhardy false economy” to cut the number of professional services roles because universities would “lose the expertise of people who make a huge contribution to the smooth running of operations and student life”.

“Universities around the UK need to rethink their priorities, recognise the importance of support staff and give them the respect they deserve,” she said.

A Solent spokeswoman said that through a “collective consultation across all professional services”, only one redundancy had been compulsory among the drop in numbers last year.

However, she added that “like others in the sector, we have felt the impact of Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic alongside the challenges of an ever more competitive marketplace”.

“These significant issues required a need for greater contingencies and an improvement in our ability to quickly react to change.”

A Manchester spokesman highlighted its voluntary severance scheme in 2020, taken “as part of measures to control costs during the pandemic”.

“As with all decisions which affect staffing levels, we worked closely and transparently with colleagues and in consultation with trade unions,” he added.



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Reader's comments (2)

Soilent have been going down the pan for some time, they off-loaded many estates and catering roles to FM contractors 'to save money' even before the pandemic, the quality of food for students went down the pan with that, and the costs to maintain the 'estate' went up. Their local competitors have slowly following suit as they can't recruit staff with the p-poor pay they're offering, which with their 'local' pensions scheme's now in the bean counters/HR sights for downgrading for 'equality' to match USS, will be even harder. How many staff have left because they no longer work for the departments and faculties directly, being remotely managed by 'professional services' directorates with no idea of the day to day running of a University?
Actually there is huge scope to cut down on the bureaucracy in UK universities. There seem to be far to many procedures, meaningless changes and bureaucracy and outright incomeptence that things will run better with less support staff. This will then release funds to pay the academics better.