Cut-throat RAE rivalry makes filling vacancies even harder

March 24, 2006

Fierce competition for staff in the run-up to the research assessment exercise is making it difficult for universities to fill job vacancies, employers reported this week.

A quarter of higher education institutions surveyed last year expected it to become harder to recruit staff because of intense competition to hire the best people before the RAE in 2008, according to the report for the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association.

Marie Strebler, senior research fellow at the Institute of Employment Studies, which conducted the study, said: "Institutions expected the RAE to have an impact on their level of recruitment - especially on the competition for high-profile people.

"There was what they called a 'transfer market', where someone with the right profile could demand a higher salary. At some universities, staff said people would threaten to leave unless they got a higher salary."

Responding to the findings, Elspeth MacArthur, chair of the Universities Personnel Association and human resources director at Edinburgh University, said it was inevitable that a transfer market was operating as the 2008 RAE neared, but there was no evidence that it was any worse than for previous RAEs.

She said: "Universities are always in competition with each other, within and beyond the UK, for excellent staff, but the problem is greatest in areas where they are also competing with commerce, the healthcare sector and professions such as law. Most institutions recognise that movement between institutions is inevitable, and indeed healthy for the higher education sector as it allows cross-fertilisation of ideas and prevents people from becoming stuck."

Ms Strebler said many universities reported that they were already having recruitment problems because of competition from industry. Especially hard hit have been disciplines such as law, accounting, business, health and computing. Competition with schools for education staff was also causing some problems.

The report, Recruitment and Retention in Higher Education 2005 , says that a third of institutions cite private and public sector pay levels as impacting on recruitment. They also felt that there was a limited pool of applicants with the right skills in some areas.

Ms Strebler said that universities could fight back in the jobs market by becoming more attractive as employers.

"To some extent, employers can capture people through training and development and induction and career progression," she said.

She said allowing academics to do consultancy work and to work in industry was appealing to people in subjects such as law, accounting, business, health and computing.

The survey found that universities also have trouble keeping some groups of non-academic staff, especially cleaners and caterers, and experience fierce competition for senior managers, financial accountants and academic registrars because there is a shortage of suitable candidates.

But most universities said that the recruitment and retention climate overall had remained broadly the same over the past year and had even improved somewhat since 2002. In 2002, 3 per cent said they usually had difficulty recruiting academics compared with 0.7 per cent in the new survey, which looked at their experiences in 2004.

The report also says that the end of some European funding streams, such as the European Social Fund, could mean the loss of some staff on fixed-term contracts.

Move on to move up

Almost a third of universities see low turnover of academics at senior level as a recruitment problem, the survey for the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association found.

The lack of movement could prompt junior staff to leave to climb the career ladder.

Marie Strebler of the Institute of Employment Studies said universities feared low turnover would block the flow of new blood into departments.

Universities needed more accurate data to get a clear view of the situation, she said. "Universities are not keeping the right statistics in a sense. If you want to calculate turnover rate, you need to take out all the people who are retiring or going on maternity leave."

Fields such as education and health sciences contain a high proportion of old staff. One unnamed institution in the study will need to replace at least half its health sciences teaching staff in the next five years.

Just over 40 per cent of institutions said their location affected their ability to retain academics. Nearly a third thought workload hindered retention, while almost a quarter said pay outside academe affected retention.

The report adds that universities should not be tempted to oversell themselves as this could prompt disappointed new recruits to leave.

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