Think out of the box

September 3, 2004

Peter Nolan blames modern working practices for a lack of motivation among academic staff

If you believe the claims of many commentators, patterns of work and employment are undergoing a fundamental transformation, and the fast-growing higher education sector is at the forefront of many developments. Globalisation, the most commonly cited driver of change in industry, now has considerable resonance in universities. The language of the international market has supplanted the professional values that predominated in the past.

For the past six years, the Economic and Social Research Council has supported 100 researchers examining changes in the world of work. For higher education, the results are not encouraging. The evidence shows that the sector is out of line with other public and private services in important respects. Casualisation rates are higher, segmentation (as measured by wage differentials) appears to be entrenched and demoralisation among academics is higher than among any other professional group in the UK.

The segmentation of occupational roles is deeply rooted. Notwithstanding advertisements by employers that claim they are committed to promoting diversity and equality, the evidence reveals serious patterns of discrimination. Gender features prominently. At every grade - lecturer, senior lecturer and professor - men fare better than their female counterparts in pay settlements and promotion.

Only one in ten women is a professor at the major research universities, yet more that 50 per cent of female school-leavers enter universities where they perform better than their male counterparts. Research from the ESRC programme reveals that women are disproportionately represented in temporary appointments and receive fewer external job offers. Moreover, temporary staff, generally, are poorly compensated compared with permanent colleagues.

Demoralisation, signalled by research drawing on the British Household Panel Survey , should cause every human resources manager to reflect.

Evidence from a battery of statistical tests, reveals that the level of staff morale in higher education is at the bottom of a list of 103 occupations.

Nationally, dissatisfaction with working hours is at an all-time high, and this discontent is shared by professionals, managerial staff and manual workers. Women, particularly those with young children, are especially affected by current work routines and employers' failing policies to improve the quality of working lives. The evidence for higher education suggests that domestic responsibilities and the care of young children are significant factors in inhibiting promotion and career development.

Casualisation is also a significant cause of demotivation for staff and the quality of service provision to students. In this respect, the level of casualisation in higher education is in line with public houses and hairdressing salons, but significantly out of line with many other professional, management and technical occupations. Most manual employees enjoy more job security than staff in higher education. The national figures reveal that nine in ten employees work in permanent jobs, contrary to past predictions by pundits of the end of careers.

Is there a new pattern of home working in the UK and has higher education been affected? National evidence reveals that most employees go to an employer's place of work in line with past patterns, but more professionals and managers work partially from home. Academics fit this description, but the evidence reveals that they often do longer hours as a result, for which they are not remunerated.

But higher education does share some characteristics with other professions. There is a trend towards more litigation to resolve disputes and grievances, and there are many more managers than there were in the past. Thirteen per cent of the workforce is engaged in supervising the work of colleagues. In universities, the swelling of managerial ranks has been driven by external assessment exercises and shows no sign of abating.

Whether this will produce a more efficient and motivated workforce remains to be seen.

Peter Nolan is director of the Economic and Social Research Council Future of Work programme. An international conference in Leeds on September 9-10 will compare changes in the UK with those in Europe, North America, Scandinavia and Africa. For details, visit

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