Best University Workplace Survey 2015: results and analysis

The results show that most people in the sector enjoy their work and their colleagues, but some are happier than others

February 5, 2015

Source: Nick Shepherd

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What is life really like in the UK’s universities? Do you feel overworked, underappreciated and underpaid? Or are your work life and your home life balanced, with your gainful employment in higher education giving you sufficient time and remuneration to enjoy some of the finer things?

This week we publish the Times Higher Education Best University Workplace Survey 2015, our second annual overview of how the people who work in UK universities – across all levels of seniority, and in a wide range of roles – feel about their employers.

Between September and December 2014, more than 4,150 higher education staff from nearly 140 institutions across the UK completed our online survey, sharing their thoughts on a wide range of employment issues.

“The results of the second annual THE Best University Workplace Survey give a fascinating snapshot of the reality of working life in our universities, with employees of 136 universities participating, including academics and administrative staff at all levels,” says John Gill, editor of THE. “Thank you to the thousands of higher education staff who participated.”

Respondents also volunteered detailed commentaries on the UK higher education sector, writing more than 5,750 appraisals of the issues that matter to them. “The huge number of detailed comments add rich context about the specific areas where universities are doing well, or where improvements are needed,” Gill adds.

We verified all survey participants as working in UK higher education institutions, with 46 per cent identifying themselves as “academics” and 54 per cent classifying their positions as “professional and support” roles.

The results of the survey highlight:

  • A gulf between the views of academics and administrators in many areas of working life
  • That most university staff get a strong sense of satisfaction from their jobs, but many academics feel overworked and taken advantage of
  • That academics generally report lower levels of satisfaction with their working lives than they did in the 2014 survey, while the opposite is true for employees in professional and support roles
  • That universities continue to struggle when it comes to valuing the opinions of their employees
  • That there are deep rifts over the issue of university pension provision.

“Of course this is only a snapshot,” says Gill, “but as it is built on the views of thousands of university staff, our analysis makes essential reading, and we hope it will help those running our universities, from vice-chancellors to heads of department, to understand the issues that matter most to staff, to share examples of good practice, and to identify where improvements can be made.”

The vast majority of staff working in higher education are happy with their vocation – 81 per cent of university employees agree that their work is a source of satisfaction – the same proportion as in the 2014 survey. (Note that throughout this article figures for “agree” and “strongly agree” have been added together, as have the figures for “disagree” and “strongly disagree”.)

In many areas, however, there is a wide gap between the views of academics and those of administrators, with the former giving far less positive ratings. This difference of opinion has widened: academics’ levels of satisfaction in many areas of work have declined slightly since the 2014 survey, while among professional and support staff levels have increased.

While 80 per cent of scholars say their work is a source of satisfaction, this is down from 85 per cent in the 2014 survey, for example. In contrast, the proportion of professional and support staff stating satisfaction in their role has risen from 78 per cent to 82 per cent.

Andrew Oswald, professor of economics at the University of Warwick and an expert on happiness and the assessment of life satisfaction, suggests that the research excellence framework may help to explain the general decline in levels of satisfaction among academics. At the time of the survey, many academics were anxiously awaiting the results of the REF.

“The drop in academics’ satisfaction appears to be statistically significant, and it is very probably because this was the year of the REF,” he says. “Exams are unpleasant. As academics, we don’t like being examined any more than our students do. Hence there is a decent chance that job satisfaction will bounce back up again next year.”

Meanwhile, Yiannis Gabriel, chair in organisation studies at the University of Bath School of Management, who helped to develop the THE Best University Workplace Survey two years ago, highlights the wide gap between the views of academics and the views of professional and support staff in many areas.

Of this “very distinct and growing” chasm, he says, “one could almost go as far as to say that higher education is becoming a ‘two-nation state’, with academics having consistently darker and more negative views and outlooks than the professional/support staff”.

For example, only 41 per cent of academics think that the workload assigned to them by their employer is reasonable, compared with 70 per cent of administrators. Among academics, 63 per cent feel that their university sometimes takes advantage of them, against 34 per cent of professional and support staff. Academics are also less likely to give a high rating to their university’s leadership (32 per cent of academics against 62 per cent of administrators), to say that they feel excited about their university’s future plans (33 per cent against 64 per cent), or to say that they would recommend their university to others (47 per cent versus 79 per cent).

Workplace perks: positive points

The institution has an excellent infrastructure, a collegial atmosphere and I feel genuinely appreciated by both colleagues and students

More than half (53 per cent) of academics think that their work responsibilities do not allow them to have a healthy work-life balance, while just 19 per cent of professional and support staff say the same thing.

Nevertheless, the core elements of scholarly life remain strong sources of satisfaction for academics: 80 per cent say that teaching provides them with some level of satisfaction, while 74 per cent say that of research. These proportions have shifted since 2014, when they stood at 79 per cent (teaching) and 80 per cent (research).

“Academics’ responses raise a very interesting theoretical issue,” says Gabriel. “How is it possible for people to claim to like their work and yet hate most things about it? What exactly is it that they like or love? One answer would be that they still love an idealised idea of what it means to be an academic that does not match the daily reality.”

Yet respondents also made many positive comments. One senior arts and humanities lecturer at a research-intensive Scottish university reports that the management “encourages and acknowledges research and teaching in equal measure”. “The institution has an excellent infrastructure, a collegial atmosphere and I feel genuinely appreciated by both colleagues and students,” he says.

Workload and work-life balance

The hours that academics work and the consequent effects on their health are a problem area, according to THE’s survey.

Almost half (47 per cent) of all respondents say that they spend “too much time working”, the same proportion as in the 2014 survey. Academics are far more likely to feel this (66 per cent, up three percentage points since the 2014 survey) than those in professional and support roles (30 per cent, down three percentage points).

Just under half of university employees (47 per cent) say that they feel their university sometimes takes advantage of them. Among professional and support staff, however, the proportion who feel this way has fallen from 42 per cent in the 2014 survey to 34 per cent.

The majority (73 per cent) of respondents say that they often work more than their contracted hours. Again, academics are more likely (87 per cent) to report having additional work than those in professional and support roles (60 per cent).

“Academic staff with larger cohorts are simply buckling under their workload and struggle with an abiding sense of failing our students,” says one university college lecturer, while a manager at a Russell Group institution says that her team’s workload has been increased because “senior management have absolutely no idea what is involved in different administrative functions and are making ridiculous decisions about the closing and merging of departments”.

Sixty-seven per cent of academics do not think that they have enough time to do the research they need to do to get ahead.

Despite this, more than half (57 per cent) of all staff believe that the workload assigned to them could be considered “reasonable”. Academics who think this, however, are in the minority (41 per cent, down from 46 per cent in the previous survey), while professional and support staff are far happier with the level of work expected of them (70 per cent, up from 64 per cent).

One-third of all university staff (33 per cent) feel that their job is having a negative impact on their health. Unsurprisingly, in light of the other findings, the proportion of academics who think this is higher – almost half (46 per cent) agree – and has risen since the 2014 survey, when 39 per cent thought their job had an impact on their health. Conversely, the proportion of professional and support staff who say that their job is adversely affecting their health has fallen from 26 per cent in the 2014 survey to 21 per cent.

Some of the comments made by academic staff reflect the findings on workload. “The atmosphere at the university is stressful and hostile and affects how staff interact with each other,” says one lecturer at a post-92 institution. “Cronyism and nepotism seem to be spreading more than ever, whilst people’s careers and health are being affected.”

One senior lecturer at a research-intensive university in the North East describes a “very unhealthy attitude to ill health among staff”, which has meant that staff have taken to “hiding illness” so as not to show weakness. Another senior lecturer at a new university in the North West observes that an “insistence on academic staff being at their desk 9-5 – but also expecting those staff to work Saturdays [and] evenings – does not lead to good health”.

Some staff, however, are complimentary about their university, demonstrating that some institutions do make an effort to accommodate their employees’ needs. “I am able to balance my work and home commitments very well with flexitime and the ability to work from home when requested,” said one employee, a member of the media, marketing and PR team at a research-intensive university in the North of England.

In the previous survey, just 38 per cent of higher education employees agreed that when they put in extra hours it was acknowledged by their manager. In 2015, there has been some improvement, with 42 per cent of respondents saying that it is noticed when they work more than their contracted hours. However, among academics, 61 per cent disagree.

“It is the same complaints that come up time and again among staff, and there is little evidence that these issues are being sorted out,” says Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union. “It’s time institutions listened to the collective cry for help from their staff and take action to ease staff concerns. Too many staff are clearly under too much pressure, and we know this can be very damaging to mental and physical health and does nothing to enhance the student experience.”

Gabriel is concerned that “on virtually every indicator regarding the quality of [academics’] experience at work, we have very strong negative views”.

“As a father of an early career academic, I feel quite uncertain whether I should encourage him to pursue what appears to be a promising career in the sector,” he admits. “If you knew nothing about the sector, would you want your son or daughter to choose it as their career? I suspect a lot of parents, especially those with very gifted children, may answer in the negative.”

Fully loaded: academics feel the weight

Too many staff are clearly under too much pressure, and we know this can be very damaging to mental and physical health

Is your subject valued?

Notably different responses are given by scholars working in different subject areas.

Asked if they feel that their subject area is valued by their university, half of academics answer affirmatively (50 per cent), down from 53 per cent in the 2014 survey. More than a third (35 per cent) take the opposite view.

In the 2014 survey, scholars working in engineering and technology were the most likely to feel that their subject was valued by their institution, with nearly two-thirds (63 per cent) saying that their discipline was important to their institution. This figure was also high in biological, mathematical and physical sciences (61 per cent).

But in the 2015 survey, there has been some change: education scholars report feeling most valued (63 per cent), closely followed by those in medicine, veterinary medicine, dentistry and health disciplines (62 per cent).

Creative arts scholars were the least likely to say that their subject was important to their university in the previous survey (44 per cent) and that trend repeats itself this year with even fewer (37 per cent) feeling valued. Those working in arts and humanities did not fare much better in the 2014 survey (45 per cent felt valued) and they remain second bottom this year, having slipped to 41 per cent.

According to Paul Kleiman, visiting professor in the School of Media and Performance at Middlesex University and until recently the Higher Education Academy’s UK lead for dance, drama and music, it “comes as no surprise” that creative arts scholars feel overlooked.

He blames the “continuing and constant focus on science, technology, engineering and maths, and the accompanying downplaying and downgrading – some might say denigration – of the arts led by the government”.

“Despite all the hard evidence about the value and contribution of the creative industries to the UK economy, and the clear evidence from the recent REF of the high quality of arts-based research, many higher education institutions – although by no means all – have willingly followed the ‘future is STEM’ agenda,” Kleiman says.

Research excellence framework

Although creative arts scholars and those working in the arts and humanities feel undervalued, it is academics in medicine, veterinary medicine, dentistry or health who are the most likely to fear losing their jobs as a result of REF 2014, our survey finds.

The results of the exercise, in which 36 disciplinary panels read and graded 191,232 research outputs by more than 52,000 staff in 154 higher education institutions, were published in December last year, and the outcome can make or break academics’ careers.

In the 2014 survey, more than a third of academics (35 per cent) believed that their institution’s response to the REF had had a negative impact on their work. This time, we asked whether academics felt that there could be redundancies in their department as a result of the 2014 REF.

Among scholars in medicine, veterinary medicine, dentistry or health, 31 per cent said they believed that some of their colleagues would face redundancy based on the REF results. Those in the creative arts were next in line when it came to redundancy fears (30 per cent), followed by those in biological and physical sciences or maths (25 per cent).

“In common with many others within the UK…the distorting influence of the REF dominates everything that the university does, promoting maladaptive behaviour from senior managers and massively damaging morale,” says one academic at a university in the Midlands whose field is medicine, veterinary medicine, dentistry or health.

One senior lecturer at a university in the South East of England claims that the turnover of academics in his institution ran at “40 per cent during the REF period”.

Despite the fears about job losses, only a quarter (25 per cent) of all university staff say that their job does not feel secure – 34 per cent among academics (the same as in 2014) and 18 per cent among those in other roles (down from 30 per cent).

Pay, pensions and benefits

The inaugural Best University Workplace Survey was published after university staff had staged a series of strikes over pay. In the past 12 months, however, the focus of industrial action has shifted from remuneration to pension payments. In November last year, members of the UCU called a marking boycott in response to proposals to move those staff at pre-92 universities who pay into the Universities Superannuation Scheme’s final salary scheme to a career average benefits scheme, which was introduced for new entrants in 2011.

We asked respondents to the 2015 survey for their thoughts on the state of university pensions, and specifically whether they felt that reform was required for the sustainability of the sector. Universities UK has said that it is committed to preserving an “affordable, attractive and sustainable pension scheme” but argues that a recovery plan is needed to address what is described as an £8 billion deficit.

Overall, 30 per cent of university employees accept that reform of the sector’s pensions is necessary, with 37 per cent taking the opposing view. The remainder do not declare their position.

However, almost half (49 per cent) of academics do not accept that change is needed, and the proportion is similar among Russell Group academics, who are more likely to be affected.

Top view: leadership assessments

Some faculties treat part-time and hourly paid academic staff very badly - both in terms of work hours paid and ensuring equal access to facilities

Oswald says he finds these results “fascinating”. “As an economist, I am afraid my view is that, sadly, many British academics appear to be living in cloud cuckoo land,” he says. “Over the past half century, the average lifespan of British university academics has risen approximately 12 years. Any sensible pension scheme has to reflect that welcome fact.”

Many respondents, however, argue for a hard line on pension reform.

“USS should not be allowed to erode pension provision,” says one academic head of department in Scotland. A Russell Group lecturer criticises their university for not showing that it values staff “by defending pensions”, while a professor at a different Russell Group institution declares that “the pensions situation is a fiasco”.

Although it is pension reform that has grabbed the headlines in recent months, pay remains a hot topic within universities.

Some 62 per cent of respondents to the 2015 survey feel that their institution offers a fair deal to employees in terms of remuneration, up one percentage point year on year, and just under half (48 per cent) of academics say that they are content with salaries (down from 55 per cent last year). But among professional and support workers, 74 per cent are happy with pay, compared with 66 per cent in the 2014 survey.

One respondent, a creative arts lecturer in the North East, was disappointed with what he perceived as hypocrisy in the way universities treat employees. “If I go on strike in support of my union, I correctly forgo the day’s [pay],” he says, “[but] if I work additional hours…I do not receive additional pay. I am not valued and [am] taken for granted.”

Respondents to the survey also highlighted concerns about how early career academics are treated, and about job security. “Some teaching fellows are doing the exact same job as lecturers, have the same experience [and] same responsibilities but get paid £8,000 to £10,000 less than a lecturer, don’t have permanent contracts, and don’t get research time,” writes one postdoc at a Scottish university.

A senior lecturer at a university in London says that the “insecurity of employment for young academics is intimidating”. “Their terms and conditions and appointment letters, of which I have seen a few, are unwelcoming, legalistic, harsh in tone and in content,” he adds.

A social sciences lecturer at a university in the North of England says that “some faculties treat part-time and hourly paid academic staff very badly – both in terms of work hours paid and in terms of ensuring equal access to facilities and equipment”.

Looking at overall working conditions and benefits, the picture is mixed. The majority of university staff taking part in the survey agree with the statement “my university offers a fair deal to its employees in terms of working conditions and benefits” (63 per cent, up from 61 per cent in the previous survey), but academics (37 per cent) are significantly more likely to disagree with this than those in other roles (13 per cent). In the 2014 survey, these figures were 30 per cent and 18 per cent, respectively.

The 2015 findings reveal that staff are more likely to stick with their current jobs than they were 12 months earlier. Just over a quarter (26 per cent) of all staff are looking to leave their current position, compared with nearly a third (29 per cent) last year. While the proportion of scholars considering a move is broadly stable (32 per cent), fewer professional and support staff say they want a new position (21 per cent, a fall of six percentage points since the 2014 survey).

“It is good to see that a significant majority believe that their institution offers them a fair deal in terms of conditions, benefits and remuneration, although there are interesting differences between staff groups,” says Helen Fairfoul, chief executive of the University and College Employers Association.

Leaders and colleagues

Respondents across all sections of the higher education sector are very positive about their closest workmates.

Across all roles, 87 per cent of survey participants say they enjoy working with their immediate colleagues. The figure stands at 83 per cent for academics (the same as the previous year) and 91 per cent for professional and support staff (up three percentage points).

“I have great colleagues, most of whom are competent, professional and collegial,” says a senior lecturer at one university in the West of England. “I feel that we are beginning to find our place, acknowledge our strengths and play to them and feel good about them, rather than aspiring to be something we’re not.”

Another senior lecturer, at a university in London, adds: “Despite the bureaucratic mess that recent reforms have made to the university, colleagues generally work effectively to provide high-quality teaching, publish valuable research and provide pastoral care to students.”

Employees tend to express much less warmth for their university’s senior leadership. A third (33 per cent) do not believe that their institution’s senior management team is performing well, although this is down from 37 per cent last year.

The proportion of academics who are critical of their university’s leadership team has grown from 46 per cent in the 2014 survey to 48 per cent, while among staff in professional and support roles, the proportion expressing dissatisfaction fell from 30 per cent to 20 per cent.

Tessa Harrison, chair of the Association of University Administrators and director, students and education, at King’s College London, says: “It is perhaps unsurprising that there is more negativity about leadership and management [than about immediate colleagues] as our leaders and managers have sought to understand the raft of policy and regulatory changes affecting higher education and their impact on our institutions. The challenges are significant, and much more attention needs to be paid to our mechanisms for training and development.”

The actions of university senior leadership attracted a great deal of comment, and left some survey participants dismayed.

“Senior management are incompetent and contemptuous of their own staff,” writes one social sciences lecturer at an institution in southern England. “An overhaul of the top personnel and alterations to their ‘vision’ would vastly improve [my university].”

Another lecturer, from a university in Wales, says: “The vice-chancellor and senior-level staff need to be replaced. Poor decision-making and a bullying culture have impacted significantly on [my institution’s] position in league tables.”

Nick Shepherd illustration (5 February 2015)

I have great colleagues, most of whom are competent, professional and collegial…I feel that we are beginning to find our place

A similar view is expressed by a senior lecturer at a Russell Group institution: “The majority of members of our university executive seem out of touch with the realities of academic life, they have little appreciation of the demands faced by staff and the difficulties in securing research funding. We don’t need these kinds of people to tell us what to do; we would be so much better off without them.”

Despite the vehemence of such comments, almost half (48 per cent) of all UK higher education staff say they believe that their institution’s leadership team is doing a good job, up six percentage points year on year.

Departmental leaders are better regarded than those at the top, with more than half (55 per cent) of our sample saying that their department managers are performing well (up from 50 per cent). Among academics, the proportion agreeing with this remains broadly stable at 46 per cent.

“While the findings indicate where more work can be done, it is also good to see the often overlooked positive movements, in particular with regard to institutions’ leadership…and job security,” says Fairfoul.

Equal opportunities

Concerns about equality continue to loom large in discussions about university life.

According to a report published in November last year by the Equality Challenge Unit, just 20 per cent of vice-chancellors and principals in the UK are women, while 78 per cent of professors are men.

Asked about whether their university has a “fair and effective” equal opportunities policy, more than two-thirds of survey respondents agree (68 per cent, up from 63 per cent in the 2014 survey), with the figure higher among women (71 per cent) than men (62 per cent).

But far fewer academics – 53 per cent – think the policy is good. Among professional and support staff, the figure is 80 per cent.

Universities’ work in this area attracted criticism from some respondents.

“Diversity is not handled well,” one arts and humanities lecturer writes of her Russell Group university. “Often, the male-dominated environment put lots of pressure on female colleagues.”

“University-wide policies on gender equality are abysmal,” says one lecturer at a plate-glass university. “The costs of lecturers going on maternity leave are absorbed by the department…in other words, colleagues are expected to take on more work rather than the university distributing funds to hire a temporary lecturer.” This means that “resentment” towards those who take maternity leave can build up, the lecturer says.

A number of respondents also expressed concern about the treatment of ethnic minority students and staff and those with disabilities.

“I cannot see diversity or equality [for] black and minority ethnic students and staff,” states one member of support staff at a Russell Group institution. “BME staff and students are…oppressed so their voices are not heard.”

“There is virtually no proper application of the Equality Act so that if you have a disability then you suffer indirect discrimination and sometimes also direct discrimination,” says a lecturer at a Russell Group institution in the South of England. “Although there is a huge emphasis on ‘well-being’ this only seems to count if you are actually well – if you have a disability or are unwell, then it can be held against you and you are made to feel that your job is under threat, regardless of whether you have gone beyond what is required in terms of teaching and research.”

Louise Morley, professor of education and director of the Centre for Higher Education and Equity Research at the University of Sussex, notes: “There appears to be some dissonance between quantitative satisfaction rates with equality policies and qualitative concerns about the paucity of equality outcomes.

“The evidence suggests that little equality progress is being made, as one in seven [respondents] expressed concern about equality of opportunity in the workplace, the same percentage as last year. A key question is whether the policies translate into action, or whether they remain at the level of text – existing simply to reassure diverse constituencies that their protected characteristics are acknowledged, but rarely factored into strategic action for change.”

The Best University Workplace Survey 2014 raised significant concerns about universities failing to give their staff a “voice”: 40 per cent of respondents said that they felt unable to make their voice heard within their institution.

In the latest survey, there has been some improvement, but more than a third (34 per cent) of university employees still say they are not listened to.

Again, academics and professional and support staff give different responses. Forty-seven per cent of academics disagree with the statement “I can make my voice heard within my university” (up from 46 per cent in the 2014 survey), compared with 23 per cent of those in other roles (down from 34 per cent).

Most staff (70 per cent) feel proud to work at their university: among professional and support staff, the figure is 82 per cent (up from 70 per cent in the 2014 survey) and among academics it is 55 per cent (down from 60 per cent).

However, arguably the most important question on our survey asks whether respondents would recommend working at their institution to others.

Almost two-thirds of staff (64 per cent, up from 59 per cent in 2014) say they would. Professional and support staff are far more likely to recommend their institution (79 per cent) than academics (47 per cent).

Kim Frost, chair of Universities Human Resources and director of human resources at the University of London, says that the 2015 survey reveals some “sobering themes, which underline how important it is for HR to support leadership skills at all levels and to encourage an open working culture”. However, he also notes: “There are some very positive themes too to celebrate, such as pride and satisfaction in work, and HR staff should take a lead in sharing areas of good practice.”

Harrison says that “at a time when the higher education sector is undergoing change on an unprecedented scale, it is reassuring that staff remain broadly satisfied about their experience and are proud of their institutions”.

Edge Hill University graduates celebrating

A most happy place: Edge Hill University

In November last year, Edge Hill University was named the 2014 Times Higher Education University of the Year at our annual THE Awards.

The results of the THE Best University Workplace Survey 2015 appear to show that the institution, which had been nominated for the prestigious prize on three occasions, is rising to impressive heights while keeping its staff content and solidly behind it.

Edge Hill claims the number one spot in all four of our key markers of a contented workforce (see below): the percentage of staff who would recommend working at their university; who have confidence in their institution’s leadership; who feel that their institution offers a healthy work-life balance; and who are satisfied with their working conditions and benefits.

John Cater, the vice-chancellor of Edge Hill, says: “It has been an academic year of accolades for Edge Hill and these results are among the most important of all. The key differentiating factor for any university is the enthusiasm and quality of its staff. The job of the senior team is to help to create, support and sustain that ethos and culture, to strengthen our sense of shared vision and strategy, to listen and to communicate effectively, and to utilise the strengths and value the contribution of each and every hard-working colleague.

“We will never be complacent, but the Times Higher Education Best University Workplace Survey acknowledges the progress that this university continues to make. We are delighted and extremely proud.”

Whose staff are the most contented? The top five universities on the key indicators

I would recommend working at my university to others% agree
Edge Hill University 94
University of Kent 86
University of Derby 80
Royal Holloway, University of London 79
University of Huddersfield 78

 

The leadership of my university is performing well% agree
Edge Hill University 94
University of Huddersfield 74
University of Derby 71
University of Sheffield 68
University of Sunderland 64

 

My work responsibilities allow for a healthy work-life balance% agree
Edge Hill University 77
University of Sunderland 69
University of Sheffield 65
Newcastle University 62
University of Kent 62

 

My university offers a fair deal to its employees in terms of working conditions and benefits% agree
Edge Hill University 94
University of Sunderland 83
University of Kent 81
University of Derby 78
University of Huddersfield 78

 

Nick Shepherd illustration (5 February 2015)

Reasons to be cheerful: high on the happiness index

Despite the concerns highlighted by the thousands of higher education staff members participating in this year’s survey, the vast majority of academics and professional and support staff say that their work gives them satisfaction.

But how does this compare with other sectors? In March last year, the Cabinet Office published a career “happiness index” designed to inform jobseekers about contentment levels among employees in different sectors.

According to the research, “higher education teaching professionals” are the 61st most contented people in the UK workforce, just ahead of “property, housing and estate managers” and “actuaries, economists and statisticians”, and marginally less happy than “air travel assistants” and “pharmaceutical technicians”.

While this might not sound impressive, a total of 4 professional areas were assessed, placing the university teachers (the category that most closely represents university staff specifically) in the top quarter of all professions.

Meanwhile, in the US, recruitment company CareerCast’s rundown of 2014’s best jobs in America (based on levels of stress and salary among other indicators) placed university professors in second place, behind “mathematicians” – many of whom also work in the higher education sector.

“It is known by labour economists that, in Western society, most workers report rather high levels of job satisfaction – despite what some members of the national press might lead us to think,” says Andrew Oswald, professor of economics at the University of Warwick. “That pattern is found in this survey, too.”

Things we like…

‘[My institution is] a warm and inclusive place. It has a great vision for the future, and is embedded in a diverse community’
Head of department, plate-glass university

‘Despite being a research-focused university, [my institution] is genuinely much more concerned about the student experience…it focuses on community action, careers and engaging students in all aspects of university life. If staff wish to develop new programmes or other initiatives, these are generally supported’
Senior lecturer, Russell Group university

‘Individual departments and academics do amazing work. I work with excellent colleagues who do meaningful work in partnership with the communities they work with, and with the students they teach’
Research assistant, plate-glass university

‘University is excellent at supporting people into higher education who might never have thought they would be able to get there; we engage early on and help to raise aspirations’
Senior manager, university in the North East

‘Anecdote from a student about two lecturers: “these ladies have changed my life”. Doesn’t get any better than to overhear that about your team’
Senior lecturer, university in the North West

‘My university values student views, and there are real pushes to enhance student satisfaction’
Senior lecturer, post-92 university

‘It really does well as an international campus – international in terms of students, staff and international links. This adds a certain “buzz” to lectures and seminars’
Senior lecturer, university in London


…and things we don’t

‘Vindictive and spiteful management. Aloof and completely inaccessible vice-chancellor. Draconian human resources. Monstrous bureaucracy with micromanagement of almost every aspect of our work’
Senior lecturer, plate-glass university

‘There should be more respect shown by academic staff to non-academic staff. During busy periods, administrators try their best to deal with requests, however academic staff can often be quite rude’
Administrative assistant, post-92 university

‘Far too many students are crammed into ill- or unventilated classrooms… it’s all rather depressing. The university needs to spend a large chunk of its reserves on teaching rooms and staff accommodation that are actually fit for purpose’
Professor, plate-glass university

‘It often feels like we are interchangeable cogs in the wheel; discard one cog and exchange it for another. Upper management doesn’t listen to the needs of staff and treats us like children’
Lecturer, university in London

‘Culture of widespread bullying, harassment and victimisation in many areas, led by senior academics and management and filtering down’
Manager, university in the North East

‘[My university] is doing very well at rewarding the principal and his cabal of sycophants and time-servers; it treats everyone else abysmally’
Manager, Scottish university

Nick Shepherd illustration (5 February 2015)

Survey methodology

To compile the Times Higher Education Best University Workplace Survey 2015, we canvassed the opinions of 4,174 higher education employees from across the UK between September and December 2014.

Of those, 1,939 (46 per cent) describe themselves as “academics”, with 2,235 (54 per cent) stating that they work in “professional and support” roles. Each respondent was given 35 statements about their institution, such as “I would recommend working at my university to others”. They were asked to indicate the extent to which they agreed or disagreed with the statement on a five-point Likert scale: strongly disagree, disagree, neither agree nor disagree, agree, or strongly agree.

In the table, the total percentages of all respondents who disagree or agree with a question are based on the survey’s raw data. As such, they may differ from the sum of the figures in the table, which have been rounded.

The survey also allowed participants to write comments about their institution in three categories: things my university does well; areas in which my university could improve; and an open box for any further comments.

To ensure that respondents completed the survey only once, and that they were affiliated to a university, only people with a working “.ac.uk” email address could take part. The owner of each email address could complete the survey only once.

The independent online survey was first developed by THE in consultation with Rob Briner and Yiannis Gabriel, professors at the University of Bath School of Management, after discussion with individuals from professional bodies and trade unions including the University and College Union, the Association of University Administrators and Universities UK.

Survey respondents came from 136 UK higher education institutions. When compiling the “top five” tables, THE included only universities where at least 25 staff had completed the survey. A total of 34 institutions met this benchmark, which is why THE decided not to show the results for every university and to publish only the results for the best performing. The approval rating for each category was derived from the number of people indicating that they “agreed” or “strongly agreed” with the given statements.

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Reader's comments (2)

I worked in a new university in England, where we were expected to undertake world leading research , involve ourselves with innovative teaching (i.e., water down the syllabus so that the cerebrally challenged, underachieving students could pass with at least a 2.1) and attend meeting after meeting, where we were bullied if we did not agree with management policies and views. Enough was enough and I left to work abroad, and I would never go back to the bullying culture that pervaded that university. I am afraid that I take a dim view of British education, and would never want to work in that regime again.
I find it very frustrating that once again this survey has failed to result in a usable table. What incentive would any member of staff have in engaging with this survey if the results are only expressed in general trends? I rather doubt John Gill's view that this kind of information will 'help those running universities... to understand the issues that matter most to staff' - without names in the frame, most seniors will simply imagine they were just pipped by the top performers. If the issue is about numbers of respondents, then why not include those number or returns in a separate column; it doesn't have to be a league table, it could be published alphabetically. I doo hope you will reconsider.

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