The number of technicians employed by UK higher education institutions has fallen by 6.2 per cent since 2009-10, analysis by Times Higher Education has shown.
The trend suggests that universities have undervalued this “unseen army” of workers in science, said Diana Garnham, chief executive of the Science Council, which last year established a professional register for technicians.
Data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency show that there were 9,180 fewer full-time and part-time workers in higher education in 2011-12 compared with 2009-10, excluding staff on atypical contracts.
While the number of academic professionals fell by just 210, or 0.1 per cent, the bulk of the decline - 8,795 staff - related to non-academic workers, 1,695 of them laboratory, engineering, building, IT and medical technicians.
The drop comes from the high recorded in 2009-10 of 181,595 academic and 205,835 non-academic staff.
Ms Garnham said that feedback to the Science Council suggested that universities targeted the technician role when research budgets were squeezed. In the biosciences, institutions were also increasingly hiring postdoctoral researchers and graduate students on an informal basis to fill such positions, she added.
“I think the fundamental issue is that we tend to see research or teaching in higher education as just for academics … and we don’t have any champions for the support staff, particularly technicians,” she told THE.
Fewer support staff, more managers
The data also show that the number of chefs, gardeners, electrical and construction workers, mechanical fitters and printers has fallen by 11.7 per cent (610 staff), while among secretaries, typists, receptionists and telephonists, numbers are down 10.6 per cent (1,725 staff).
The aggregate of cleaners, catering assistants, security officers, porters and maintenance workers has fallen by 7.2 per cent (2,150 workers).
Mike Short, senior national officer for education and children’s services at Unison, said the losses were likely linked to outsourcing because staff who transfer to private companies no longer appear in the Hesa statistics.
Universities are increasingly looking to outsource a wider range of support work, he said, which can affect recruitment, staff retention and overall services.
“We’re also seeing an increase in instances where institutions restructure and consider job losses. The whole thing is a concern for us,” he added.
Anger over outsourcing boiled over at the University of Sussex last week when students occupied a floor of the institution’s conference centre in protest against management plans to transfer 235 estates and catering jobs to private companies.
Mr Short argued that the role support staff play in university culture was often overlooked, particularly in pastoral care, as catering staff, porters and cleaners are frequently the first point of call for students with problems.
The Hesa data show that since 2009-10 staff numbers have increased in just three areas: managers (up 1.2 per cent); student welfare workers, careers advisers, vocational training instructors, plus personnel and planning officers (up 5.1 per cent); and artistic, media public relations, marketing and sports occupations (up 1.5 per cent).
Matthew Andrews, academic registrar at Oxford Brookes University and chair of the Association of University Administrators, said that the rise in student welfare provided “real evidence of a trend to put student experience at the heart” of the system.
The increase in managerial numbers was likely down to an increasingly complex regulatory environment, he added, while the rise in PR staff could be explained by “a growing interest and need to communicate with stakeholders” including students and members of the local community.
Academic professionals also made up the vast majority of an overall rise of 4,710 in the number of atypical staff - who are defined as those with working arrangements that are not permanent, involve complex employment terms and/or work away from the supervision of the normal employer.