Low pay, a large proportion of academics facing retirement, chairs lying vacant and recruitment and retention problems in many areas. Claire Sanders reports on a sector in trouble
A staffing crisis in universities, which is being compared to the recruitment problems in nursing and school teaching, is threatening government efforts to create a "knowledge-driven" economy.
A report published today, Recruitment and Retention in Employment in UK Higher Education, lays the blame firmly on low pay.
It cites instances of chairs remaining vacant for up to a year, compromises in quality of appointees and projects being halted because of the difficulty of finding suitable staff. It highlights engineering, computer science and maths as areas of particular concern.
The report also found that departments are losing many of their "brightest and best graduates to industry in a one-way traffic".
It issues a stark warning that recruitment and retention problems are having a significant impact on the ability of institutions to achieve their goals.
"This has potential consequences for undermining the contribution that the higher education sector can make to the building of a knowledge-driven economy and the creation of a highly skilled workforce," it says.
Further research by the Association of University Teachers and The THES with the Royal Society of Chemistry draws a still bleaker picture when the age of academics is taken into account. At many prestigious research universities nearly a quarter of permanent staff are over 55.
Recruitment and Retention in Employment in UK Higher Education was commissioned by the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, the funding councils, the Standing Conference of Principals and the Universities and Colleges Employers Association as a follow-up to last June's Bett inquiry into pay and conditions.
Sir Michael Bett warned that the staffing problems identified in his report "may be the harbingers of much more serious problems".
He also said that "the current recruitment crises for nursing and school teaching had arisen rapidly after several years in which respective managements had described the situation as generally fine though with a few odd problems".
The AUT argues that the age profile of academics and the increasing use of fixed-term contracts are creating the situation.
In 1997-98 more than a third of academic staff in old universities and nearly a quarter in new universities were over 50, the AUT found. The AUT and the RSC/THES have analysed the age profile of full-time and part-time academic staff (excluding research-only) on permanent and fixed-term contracts, using raw data provided by the Higher Education Statistics Agency.
Stephen Court, senior research officer at the AUT, says: "We have looked at lecturers, senior lecturers and professors because these are the people who do the teaching at the universities.
"A lot of these people are going to retire soon. When you look at the increasing use of fixed-term contracts, as opposed to secure and permanent contracts, you see that those coming up in the younger age groups are being offered little incentive to stay."
The Royal Society of Chemistry ranked universities according to the percentage of staff over 55.
Data compiled by Sean McWhinnie, science policy officer at the RSC, shows that old universities dominate the top of the table. At Oxford, Cambridge and Sussex about a quarter of all academic staff are over 55. Those with the lowest percentage of staff over 55 tend to be new universities.
Tony Bruce, policy development director at the CVCP, said: "There is no room for complacency from the sector or from government."
Diana Warwick, CVCP chief executive, said: "Urgent action is needed to address these issues. Universities can play their part in developing attractive career paths in academia, but we need significant new funding if we are going to tackle the growing imbalance between academic salaries and those in the private sector."
According to Peter Humphreys, chief executive of UCEA, "We hope the government will address the issue through additional funding to higher education in the next comprehensive spending review."
The report is in two parts. The first, based on anonymous case studies of 11 universities and two colleges of higher education, concludes: "If higher education institutions are unable to recruit their fair share of the brightest and most talented people this will, in the medium and long term, have a fundamental impact on the ability of higher education institutions to underpin a knowledge-based economy.
"A situation in which difficulties are worsening, in a context when higher education-level skills are at an increasing premium, is a serious cause for concern."
The second part of the report is the sector-wide survey, which confirms Bett's finding that "with the exception of certain sub-groups of staff and localities, there was not a widespread problem".
But it says the situation is worsening and "recruitment and retention difficulties had increased since last year". Both parts show that universities are having trouble recruiting in areas key to the successful creation of a knowledge-driven economy.
Figure one shows the subject areas that were mentioned as problem areas most frequently in the case studies - engineering, computer science and maths come high on the list.
The sector-wide survey also uncovered that universities found it particularly hard to recruit academics in business subjects, information technology and engineering. They also found it hard to recruit administrative/professional and technical staff in information technology.
Figure two lists the subject areas in which universities as a whole found it most difficult to recruit academics.
The survey found recruitment and retention was more serious for new rather than old universities.
The report on the case studies concludes: "In branches of engineering and science, where the UK is acknowledged to be one of the leaders in research and development, heads of department find they are struggling to attract the quality of applicants they require to maintain that lead."
Both studies found that higher education institutions were having problems recruiting at senior and junior levels. The problem was most acute at senior level. In the case studies, problems "recruiting high-calibre academic staff at senior/professorial level" went beyond the subject areas identified as problematic.
It was felt that universities now demanded of their senior staff a mix of academic, professional and managerial skills - and that this mix was hard to find.
All 13 institutions highlighted pay at junior and senior level as particularly low: "Starting salaries and senior salaries were both considered to have fallen behind the relevant comparators in the private sector and the public sector," says the report.
The survey found low pay made it difficult to recruit and retain professors and senior academics.
Some universities complained key staff had been headhunted by universities keen to improve their research assessment exercise ratings - and that it could take up to two years to replace such people.
Like Bett, the report identifies bunching at the top of salary scales as a problem.
Difficulties recruiting junior staff were particularly bad in
subjects where salaries for
new graduates are higher in the private sector than in academia.
A survey from the Association of Graduate Recruiters published last February said the average graduate starting salary was Pounds 17,500.
The case studies report compared this with starting salaries in higher education. A pay gap of up to 50 per cent was cited in areas such as electrical engineering, finance, the pharmaceutical industry, media and design companies, communications and IT.
"The appetite of consultancies of all kinds for bright, professionally qualified staff is huge. They are able to pay good salaries and offer a career path where research tasks are a key part of the activities undertaken."
The Higher Education Funding Council for England also analysed Hesa student data and found, over a four-year period, a steady decline in the numbers of new graduates going on to take PhDs.
The Bett report highlighted the ageing profile of the main sciences. In 1996-97, some 30 per cent of academic staff in physics departments were over the age of 55, in chemistry the percentage was 28, in maths it was 21 and in engineering it was 19 per cent.
David Triesman, general secretary of the AUT, said: "Too few of our best young people are attracted to academic careers. And they are right. It is now a poor career. The universities, as a result, are now in a precarious state."
"Part of the problem is the
cutting off of supply at the
bottom," said Paul Mackney,
the general secretary of Natfhe.
"Higher education is now an industry more casualised than catering. After a while the lure of the private sector becomes too much of a temptation."
The AUT research shows the problem is not confined to the sciences. The proportion of staff approaching retirement heavily outnumbers young entrants into academia.
Figure three shows UK higher education institutions where there are more than two academic staff aged over 50, for every member of staff aged up to 35. Overall, 22 per cent of UK higher education institutions have a ratio of more than two staff aged over 50 for every one member of staff up to 35.
Figure four shows the ten universities with the highest percentages of staff over 55.
An AUT analysis of the types of contract offered to staff highlights further problems. The majority of academic staff on permanent contracts are aged over 46, while the majority of staff on fixed-term contracts are aged up to 40. In its submission to the next comprehensive spending review the CVCP has told the government it will cost Pounds 675 million to modernise pay structures, Pounds 530 million to tackle recruitment and retention problems and Pounds 195 million to improve development and training.
Mr Bruce says: "We hope the Treasury will respond to the empirical evidence that we have a very real problem that needs to be taken seriously."