Recruitment freezes at third of UK universities

Ucea report suggests more direct methods of reining in staff spending are being used amid financial pressure

October 16, 2019
Pound currency symbol frozen in ice block

More than a third of universities in the UK are using recruitment freezes to save money on staff costs, a new survey of institutions has revealed.

According to the latest biennial Workforce Survey from the Universities and Colleges Employers Association, 35 per cent of the 87 institutions responding had used such freezes in the last year or were in the process of implementing them. A further 6 per cent of those responding said they were considering such a move.

This compares with the last survey two years ago when recruitment freezes were not being as widely used: 15 out of 71 institutions (21 per cent) responding in 2017 said they had used a recruitment freeze and a further five (7 per cent) were considering it.

Meanwhile, more than half of the institutions responding to the latest survey had frozen extra payments to staff for outstanding performance, including bonuses and salary top-ups, to cut costs.

During the last Workforce Survey in 2017, such freezes on “contribution-related” pay were one of the least popular ways of universities trying to rein in staff spending. Now it tops the list among the methods already implemented by institutions within the last year.

If approaches currently in the process of being implemented are also included, then changes to institutions’ own internal pension schemes come top of the list of ways universities are trying to save money on staff spending.

According to a report accompanying the results of the survey, such decisions come against the backdrop of “a challenging financial period” in the last academic year.

The report warns that “stretched institutional finances” had seen 47 institutions in the UK reporting deficits for 2017-18, “the worst position seen in at least a decade”.

However, the latest survey does appear to suggest that staff restructuring has become less likely to be used as a way to save money – more than 40 per cent of universities said in 2017 that they had done this, a figure that was around 10 per cent this time, including schemes in progress.

Universities spent around £20.1 billion on staff costs in 2017-18, according to Higher Education Statistics Agency data, an increase of 6.3 per cent. This represented over half of all expenditure, although it is a share that has been falling in recent years.

Laurence Hopkins, head of research at Ucea, said the level of staff spending meant it was “not surprising” that universities “will look to manage that investment when there are financial pressures”.

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