Will it be Heigh-ho! or Oh no!

It’s off to work we go. Our Best University Workplace Survey reveals discontent, but it’s not all gloom and doom

January 30, 2014

Are you happy? The answer will depend on lots of things, but few factors are as crucial as how you feel about your work.

This week, in a UK first, we publish the results of a survey of 4,500 university staff detailing the reality of working life across every pay grade and post.

The findings, which will inform our coverage throughout the year, make essential reading at a time when the profession is coming under sustained – some would say unprecedented – pressure from policy reforms and from changing attitudes about what higher education is “for” (not to mention such strains as the research excellence framework).

In this inaugural year of the Times Higher Education Best University Workplace Survey, we have chosen not to produce an overall ranking of institutions, although we do identify some standout performers in key areas.

One department was supportive and dynamic; the other was under-performing, undermined by poor managerial strategy and isolated

The data reveal clear trends: the vast majority of participants state that work is a source of satisfaction; many express doubts about the quality of leadership; and more report that they are worried about job security than about pay.

But while the statistics paint the big picture, personal stories – revealed in more than 6,500 detailed comments – bring the survey to life.

One professor at a new university emphasises the job satisfaction described by many: “I am very happy here. Academics moan a lot, but relative to the non-academic world, we have it easy, are treated fairly and garner prestige and status.”

An administrator at a pre-1992 institution is similarly content: “I thoroughly enjoy my work. I am generously paid and appreciated with clear guidelines for promotion.”

So far, so good.

But a Russell Group academic voices a common frustration about the gap between staff aspirations and the help they get to achieve their goals: “I love my job and want to do the best for my students,” she says. “But I get virtually no support…It’s demoralising.”

Another respondent worries that “administrators are grossly undervalued – and underpaid – so the good ones leave”, while yet another voices the common concern that although “my immediate colleagues and students are great, the management are not (cynical, divisive and often chaotic)”.

This dissatisfaction, or alienation, from senior management is a recurring theme, as are employment conditions (“I’m on a zero-hours contract, paid a minor percentage of my previous pay to do the same job”) and an over-emphasis on metrics such as league table position and, of course, the REF.

But it would be wrong to paint too gloomy a picture, for the comments capture as many positives as negatives – often simultaneously.

“I’ve worked here for 21 years in two departments and have radically different experiences to reflect on,” writes an academic at a large metropolitan university.

“One department was supportive, dynamic and populated by forward-looking staff; the other was under-performing, undermined by poor managerial strategy, isolated from the main campus, derided by other faculties, and viciously exploitative of its staff’s goodwill.”

A final comment recognises that some issues are common whatever your job: “The university on the whole is a good place to work. Individual managers can detract from that. Such is life everywhere, I guess.”

john.gill@tsleducation.com

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