Where the grass is greener

More academics are weighing up job satisfaction against extracurricular factors such as house prices, local schools and even the weather. Esther Oxford reveals which institutions are most attractive in the Halifax-Times Higher Education quality-of-life index

March 6, 2008

It is a shock result for the University of Oxford. "I find this outcome extraordinary," says Ruth Collier, its head of press, on hearing its ranking in a new league table prepared for Times Higher Education. "Is the survey saying that Oxford as a city isn't one that people want to live in? Where does Cambridge come? Who's on top?"

See downloadable .xls document (Halifax-Times Higher Education Quality of Life Rankings) on the right-hand side

Collier's surprise is understandable. It is not often that Oxford finds itself 68th in any university league table. But the first-ever Halifax-Times Higher Education university quality-of-life index is not your typical league table. It is designed as a tool for academics, particularly those looking for jobs. While it offers a measure of quality, it does not measure the things typically associated with university quality, namely research and teaching performance.

This is not to downplay the importance of research and teaching to academics. But are research assessment exercise scores always more important than the price of housing in a university town, local crime rates, the quality of local schools or traffic congestion?

The Halifax-Times Higher Education university quality-of-life index also factors in two university-specific measures. These are average salaries, based on the 2005-06 figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, and the proportion of staff on permanent or open-ended contracts.

Oxford and other leading universities, such as Manchester (which appears in 118th position), may be right when they say that their reputations ensure they will always come top of any academic's wish list of institutions to work for.

As Collier says: "We recruit and retain world-class academics from around the globe, thanks to our international standing, the top quality of our research and teaching and our outstanding students and facilities."

A statement from the University of Oxford reads: "Houses in Oxford are expensive but the university provides housing support for academics.

"Oxford has a large number of very good schools," it continues, and the high burglary rate is "apparently due to bike thefts".

These are valid points, but many of the people of the calibre needed by Oxford could take their pick from universities anywhere in the UK and overseas. In a competition for leading academics, Oxford and Cambridge are up against US institutions such as the universities of Yale, Harvard and Princeton. Arguably, these offer a superior quality of life to their British counterparts.

Gail Kinman, reader in occupational health psychology at the University of Bedfordshire, warns against complacency. "Prestigious universities need to make sure they look after staff properly," she says. "They need to look at the 'lifestyle' package - not just for those who want children but for those who appreciate a good working environment for their own reasons."

It is perhaps only within the past ten years that quality of life has become a major component of what academics, and for that matter wider society, are looking for as part of their professional lives.

Where once academics would never have asked a question such as "what are the local schools like?" in a job interview, now such questions are common and clearly influence people's decisions before and after interview.

David Chiddick, vice-chancellor of the University of Lincoln, has interviewed many academics. "Their questions tend to revolve around lifestyle matters such as car parking, housing and good schools," he says.

"I do my best to answer them. In my opinion it's perfectly acceptable for people to ask questions about the life-work balance in a way that would have been taboo four or five years ago," Chiddick says.

"We've come up with a personal benefits package for our staff that reflects how seriously we take their concerns. They get discounts from companies, they get free access to our sports centre and access to a complementary medicine course at a reduced rate."

Many of the UK's most prestigious institutions, including Oxford, the London colleges and the big civic universities, are in cities and so tend to suffer in our lifestyle index because of the blight that urban poverty can cast on school achievement and levels of crime. And, inevitably, congestion tends to be an urban problem.

The flipside is that greenfield and suburban institutions tend to fare better. Bucks New University, for example, comes out top of the index, thanks to the area's low unemployment, a housing market dominated by large, owner-occupied houses, low CO2 emissions, excellent schools and decent weather. It is followed closely by the University of Surrey.

At the bottom of the table (121st) is Manchester Metropolitan University, with the University of Manchester just three places behind it. Manchester Met did not respond to Times Higher Education's requests for comment.

It is a subject that universities are clearly sensitive about. Just how do they provide a lifestyle that will attract talented staff and keep them feeling happy and fulfilled when external factors, such as schooling and housing, are outside their control? There are no easy answers, but the danger is that if they do not acknowledge and address these issues they risk being unable to recruit the staff they want and losing the staff they have to more lifestyle-friendly institutions.

"We've recruited quite a lot of people from big universities - particularly the University of Manchester," says Ian Clarke, chair in strategic management and marketing at Lancaster University Management School (69th in the index).

"People want collegiality, good schools, the Yorkshire Dales. And with the high workloads it's become easier for academics to think: 'There must be more to life than this.' They want compensation."

Bath Spa University comes seventh in the index, which is hardly surprising given the desirability of the locale. But it is not all about a good location.

"We've had some job applications from applicants who were under considerable pressure to publish and were not happy to be put under such pressure," says Frank Morgan, Bath Spa's vice-chancellor. "Some have feared redundancy and can see the writing on the wall. All of them want a work environment where they have more control and fewer outside pressures."

Academics who accept a job at Bath Spa are rewarded with great autonomy and the scope to have a major say in the teaching and running of the curriculum, says Morgan. "There is no pecking order here in terms of seniority. Even the newest members can make changes and design modules."

The fact that 100 per cent of staff are on permanent contracts at Bath Spa does nothing to harm its standing. "We teach a lot of arts subjects and often recruit people with a continuing commitment to performance and writing. We want to give them security. That's very attractive to staff thinking about relocating," Morgan says.

Bath Spa is not the only university willing to push the boat out to attract the best lecturers and professors.

"Universities are increasingly recognising that in order to recruit and retain the best people, you have to offer a flexible working package," says Sue Cartwright, professor of organisational psychology at the University of Manchester Business School. "And if you want people to be productive and have innovative ideas you need to provide a good work-life balance and to make them feel valued."

To keep up with the growing awareness of the need for a work-life balance, universities are coming up with increasingly imaginative initiatives to show potential job applicants that their university work-culture is modern, family-friendly and proactive in encouraging staff to have a life outside work.

"We are competing with a host of other universities," says Patrick Cole, director of personnel services at Loughborough University, ranked tenth in the Halifax-Times Higher Education table. "Lifestyle issues can swing the decision when it comes to academics deciding where they want to work, and salaries, and the cost of housing.

"Our salary levels are already fairly competitive. House prices tend to be low. There is a good range of accommodation, and we offer generous relocation packages. We also have additional grants to cover the cost of legal fees and estate agency fees. We are quite generous compared to other places."

The University of Lincoln (ranked 29th) has also been proactive in selling itself as "lifestyle friendly". Its promotional video shows the institution at its best and features staff talking about why they fell in love with the university and the city - all of which gives the impression of a university sympathetic to the "holistic" needs of its staff. It seems to work.

"We've recruited eminent people from Yale and Durham. Academics have since followed them, inspired by their presence. We've found we are no longer having problems getting able professors," Chiddick says.

Joy Carter, vice-chancellor at the University of Winchester (4th in the index) is far more blunt in her attempt to win over academics who want a better lifestyle. She sells the "core values" of her friendly university in the job application pack.

Asked what they are, she mentions "spirituality", "a sense of the individual mattering" and "creativity".

"These values seem to be very attractive to academics looking for a good work-life balance in their jobs," she says. "To attract the most talented staff we try to put everyone on long-term contracts to give security and continuity for staff members.

"Admittedly our average salary comes out lower than some - but that's partly because we don't have medicine and dentistry courses here, so subject profile makes the total average come out lower. We also have younger staff starting off on their career path."

The university has also employed a senior member of management to consult staff on what is important to them and what kind of conditions would make the life-work balance easier. "But I still don't think we've gone far enough in terms of our willingness to break the taboo of requesting a good home-work balance," Carter says.

"Academics feel happiest when they know that their efforts are being rewarded," says Kinman from Bedfordshire.

"The three ways of rewarding academics are pay, promotion and appreciation. If any of these three factors are out of balance, an academic will often start looking for another job. Better schools and houses definitely help."

Traditionally, universities have been ahead of the game in terms of accommodating a work-life balance. "Nobody knows where we are half the time anyway," says Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University. "The nature of the job requires us to have a safe haven to do our work so we've always been able to work from home, helped by technology such as e-mail."

But this is balanced by a rise in workloads. "The demands of academia have risen massively, particularly in research-intensive universities. Many people are working evenings, weekends and holidays to maintain a high research profile," Kinman says.

"If your research is deemed to be sub-standard or your research area doesn't fit in with the designated area of your department, you may be told to shift to teaching-only responsibilities. This can be a big blow to many academics - creating a 'trigger for change'.

"People are coming out at the end of a research assessment exercise and thinking, 'I can't do that again - I need to change my life.' But rather than saying: 'I'm not going to work on Sunday or after 6pm,' they end up taking far more drastic action and downsizing to a less competitive environment where they won't be pushed so hard and where more latitude is offered. They will often accept a pay cut to do so."

Many university vice-chancellors are sympathetic to such applicants. "The job applicants we've interviewed in the past few years have all asked questions along the same theme," says David Green, vice-chancellor at the University of Worcester, which is ranked 20th in the index.

"They want to know if there is respect, whether they can pursue their outside passions and whether they'll be given opportunities to make a difference within the university."

Worcester's female-dominated senior executive team - and the fact that two-thirds of the staff are women - has ensured that the "walking wounded" (academics who have become exhausted with the demands of a prestigious university within a less-than-pleasant city) have been met with a warm welcome.

"We've had a very fast growth of applicants, and it's nothing to do with merging new campuses or new sports facilities. It's based on the atmosphere here, which is delivered by people. And that has to do with the feminisation of the workforce," Green says.

Ian Clarke, from Lancaster University Management School, is also sympathetic, as long as the walking wounded regain their drive once they have breathed in the fresh northern air.

"If someone tried to get a job at our university (merely) for lifestyle reasons I'd argue that they wouldn't get a position," he says. "Anyone wanting to work here needs to show they are firing on all cylinders on the work front. And they do."

"It's a warning that needs to be heeded," says Kinman, cautioning against academics making their situation worse.

"Academics do have to be careful to ensure that if they do decide to downsize, the reality is likely to meet their ideals. They could end up at a university that doesn't support their needs, or at a university that makes even more administrative and management demands and yet doesn't have proper resources."

She acknowledges that it is difficult to test-drive a job. "Instead, try talking to people in the same job. Ask what it's like in terms of holidays, working from home and support for researchers on sabbatical. Or if you are close to retirement consider 'stepping down' and accepting a less senior job title and a smaller wage in exchange for a better work-life balance. This will preserve all pension rights."

But a better solution would be for universities to make sure that they look after their staff properly.

"If academics feel respected and appreciated by staff and colleagues - and the life-work balance is right - many academics will put up with poor pay just for the satisfaction of a job well done," Kinman says.

By ignoring the importance of lifestyle factors in the increasingly global job market, British universities - particularly the more prestigious institutions - are in danger of losing some of their best academics to greener pastures overseas.

Failing that, there is always the lure of a less prestigious institution offering a better quality of life.

As Kinman says: "It's very attractive to be a big fish in a small pond - especially if it doesn't involve a pay cut. And you get better housing and social support from your colleagues because it's far less competitive."

ESCAPE FROM THE CITY

- University of Brighton

Catherine Harper, head of the School of Architecture and Design, moved to Brighton six years ago from Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design in London.

She lives with her partner, a friend and her family in Hove. They moved from Tottenham in north London, having tired of life in the capital. Harper enjoyed the excitement and variety of the city, but she says she felt the same excitement in Brighton, a cosmopolitan place where the "quality of life is a little easier".

"London is a fantastic place to live but it can be tough, especially if like most people you don't have the money to live in a good central property," she says.

"I feel that in moving to Brighton I still have that buzz, without feeling as if I've moved to a backwater. It's just a little gentler."

Harper says the traffic isn't any worse than in most cities, she feels safe walking around at night, and she loves being near the sea.

"Being in London all those years, I hadn't realised how important it is for me to be by the sea. It's a lovely thing to have in your life. The beach is also great for walking my dogs," she says.

"Brighton is very calming. With that expanse of water and the downs on my doorstep it's easy to clear my head of any visual clutter."

Harper is also delighted with the health services. "I've traded in some pretty poor doctors in London for a good surgery in Hove."

She was also attracted to "the tolerance of Brighton. Although it isn't as multicultural as London, it is a very friendly city. The gay community gives it a feeling of being very liberal."

- Bucks New University

His children may be only 18 months old and three years old, but Bill Schaaf is pleased that he moved from London to Buckinghamshire because, he says, the schools are better.

Schaaf, head of the School of Design and Craft at Bucks New University, previously taught at Ravensbourne College of Design and Communication in London. He moved from Notting Hill in west London to Buckinghamshire in 2006.

"I'm confident that my children will grow up happy here," he says.

"My wife was eight months pregnant so we had to move fairly quickly. But there was a large range of housing, so we rented a property straightaway, which we are now in the process of buying."

Originally, Schaaf was considering institutions such as Goldsmiths, University of London, but friends and colleagues at Bucks New University influenced his decision to move out of London.

He says: "Everyone I've asked about Bucks New University has almost universally said they would return to work here. It's rare for people to say they will go back to work at an institution without hesitation, and I thought that was a good indicator of the excellence of the university."

Katy Palmer

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