Three in five UK university staff ‘set to quit within five years’

Four in five postgraduates who responded to union survey say they are likely to leave sector

March 25, 2022
Close up view of female employee holding box, quitting job
Source: iStock

Sixty per cent of UK higher education staff who took part in a new University and College Union survey said they were likely to leave the sector within the next five years.

The number rose even higher among postgraduate students, 81 per cent of whom said they were likely to look for work elsewhere because of deteriorating pay and working conditions.

Jo Grady, the union’s general secretary, said the “stark” findings were accompanied by “harrowing” testimonies from staff, many of whom she described as “not at breaking point but already broken”.

UCU say its report, based on a survey of nearly 7,000 members and titled UK higher education: a workforce in crisis, should “sound the alarm” about the future of the sector and warned of a staff exodus in the coming years.

The union has called for a parliamentary inquiry and wants the House of Commons Education Select Committee to look into the morale and well-being of staff in higher education and the impact of policies on pensions, pay and working conditions.

Dr Grady said members overwhelmingly blamed the low morale on vice-chancellors, who she accused of not listening to staff concerns around high workloads, insecure contracts and low pay.

The survey was conducted at the end of February amid industrial action over cuts to pensions provided via the Universities Superannuation Scheme, which will cut thousands of pounds annually from employees’ guaranteed retirement benefits. Dr Grady said she expected discontent but until this point had not  fully understood the sheer level of unhappiness in the sector, particularly among those just starting out in their careers.

She said it was a “damning indictment of the toxic culture” in universities that those who should be the most enthusiastic, having just secured their first positions in the sector, were planning to leave “before they’ve got their feet under the table”.

The survey also found that of respondents aged over 60, 71 per cent said they were likely to leave due to cuts to their pensions.

“They are simultaneously driving away people towards the end and beginning of their career. Without action this could cut the legs from the entire higher education sector,” Dr Grady said.

UCU also warned that discontent among university staff poses a risk to the UK’s reputation as an international leader in research, as three in four researchers polled are considering leaving.

Dr Grady warned that this group tended to be younger, more mobile and have fewer roots in the UK so are therefore happy to leave the country in search of work overseas.

Other findings from the survey included 88 per cent of respondents saying they were not optimistic or not at all optimistic about the future of higher education in the UK and 57 per cent of respondents saying they are unhappy or very unhappy about spending the remainder of their career in the sector.

Dr Grady admitted that it would take a long time to restore trust among disillusioned academics but said some of the issues being experienced such as high workloads and casual contracts could be “remedied quite easily”.

“Some of the problems could be easily fixed if there was the will to do it amongst the people who lead institutions rather than them acting so defensively and as if things can never change,” she added.

Universities UK said that the “excellence of our staff is central to UK universities’ global reputation for teaching and research”.

“We want UCU and employers to work closely and positively together on issues of common interest to ensure that our highly respected university sector offers a high quality and positive experience for both students and staff,” the organisation said.

“UUK looks forward to assisting the work of Ucea [the Universities and Colleges Employers Association], UCU and individual universities to ensure higher education institutions offer supportive working environments in which staff can thrive, alongside attractive renumeration and benefits.”

Raj Jethwa, Ucea’s chief executive, said it was “time for UCU to consider their members by progressing the consistent offers that have been made by employers” on issues such as workload and insecure contracts.

“The health, safety and well-being of staff and students is of paramount importance to all in HE and there are good examples where employers and unions have worked together in this crucial area,” Mr Jethwa said.

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Reader's comments (17)

I think it is worse than this article suggests. The really good and interesting people are leaving, have left already, or simply are no longer applying. Workload is the biggest issue- good scholars join academia to do research primarily. Academic independence and a lot of time is needed for this. The UK system has gone completely wrong on both counts.
No longer applying is a good point. I work at a so-called 'top ten' University and the calibre of applicants we get is dire
Universities used to be places where intergenerational conversations flourished, where young people could take time to naturally develop into rounded individuals learning from experts who had passion and time to think. They were nurturing, experimental places full of optimism and positivity. They've become places where burnt out staff are expected to be pedagogical innovators, researchers, counsellors, life coaches, mentors, PR professionals, technicians and administrators. Staff are expected to support large numbers of students in significant financial hardship who are put under cruel pressure to have long term career goals far too young. Learning is no longer about intellectual curiosity and exploration. The mental health of staff and students is in crisis. The response of government and VCs is to create a target driven culture that damages the quality of education and creates punishing pressures on staff and students to seek continual improvement in metrics which frequently bear no relation to the real world.
Very well said.
There is a big problem with morale in universities just now - but - as a UCU member I'm not sure this survey is very scientific. I imagine that those that filled it in were trying to make a point. The UCU send out so much junk mail that many will have ignored it. Then there are all those that are not in a union. It's hardly an objective measure of anything.
A factor in our current situation is one that impacts all major organisations in the world we've created. The smart people hate the routine tasks that are necessary to keep things going and divest them to the bureaucrats and academics with a bureaucratic mindset. Once in charge those people hire more like themselves and produce an environment that is so hide bound in their mindless rules and virtuous practices that those with a brain either give up or go away.
Agree with comments above regarding the non scientific nature of the survey and respondents making a point - however. First, good calibre academics are not 'locked in' o their jobs, they have options, there are other things that they can do. Especially in sciences and engineering. If the good people leave, that leaves - the others. Second, there has been a chronic failure of HR planning and succession planning. Third, the money is dire and hasn't kept up with inflation by a long, long way. Go figure.
Not surprised by this at all. I am glad that I only have a few years left before I intend to retire. The job is now much less enjoyable than it was, with lower pay in real terms and worse pension provision. I am fortunate that my employer is benign so some of the freedoms traditionally part of the job remain. However, there seems to be an increasing distance between higher management and academic staff resulting in growing dissatisfaction.
It's true that a UCU survey may provide an exaggerated picture of the problem, but the results are so dire that I hope they do make the select committee sit up and take notice. If an enquiry were to occur, that committee could of course source other information to help them understand what's going on in HE (eg the results of internal staff surveys in full, and data for occupational and mental health referrals), as well as testimony from a wider range of academics. My first hand experience (Russell Group Uni) is that the level of anger is equally high amongst all staff - not just those associated with the union.
"Learning is no longer about intellectual curiosity and exploration." Quite right. It is all about money. And who controls the money? The administrations with their secure jobs and future empire-building projects. At bottom, they don't give a damn about precarity amongst staff and students. As usual, all I can do is recommend reading Chomsky. He says it all in a nutshell.
He does indeed.
That article by Chomsky is really good: thanks for sharing it.
UCU's survey may not be 100% accurate, but does anyone think morale in HE is high, or that aggressive out-of-touch management is not at least partly to blame? The Registrar/COO of my employer, the University of Manchester, has said he believes 20% of staff do not pull their weight. Academic staff who do not have enough (internally assessed) 3* publications have been told to choose between facing disciplinary action for underperformance or switching to teaching focussed contracts. There have been 6 or 7 restructures in as many years involving well over 1000 staff being told they are at risk of compulsory redundancy. In 2020, over 600 took voluntary severance rather than stay with an employer that was using Covid and dire predictions of a 15-25% fall in revenue (which did not materialise as student recruitment went up rather than down) to attack and diminish security of employment and voluntary severance policies. Last summer, when UCEA's 1.5% pay offer was being discussed, our V-C and HR Director used a patently false analysis to claim inflation was around 0.98% when ONS data showed it was over 2% and rising. Similar stories can be told in other institutions. Add to all of that cuts to pensions that could have been avoided and a 1.5% pay rise in the face of the highest inflation in 40 years - from employers with healthy operating surpluses who can afford large building programmes and mega-salaries for senior leadership teams - and is it any surprise morale is low? The current UCU strikes may not be sufficient to force employers to reward hard-working staff who have borne the brunt of Covid in the way they deserve, but none should take that as a sign of staff satisfaction let alone approval of the way UK universities are being managed.
UCU strikes will not work unless they cover marking. Brutal, but the only way to get movement from the 'fat cat' managers running down our universities. They don't care about academic or administrative staff, but they will have no choice but to compromise when faced with a student backlash over marking.
Teaching focussed contracts are used as a stick to beat academics with. No carrots for that tenure track, and those staff are treated as very poor cousins to their colleagues on the research tenure track. The toxic culture is even worse here as academics on teaching contracts are subject to lots of micro aggressions by those on research contracts. Sad
Cant wait! On the teaching track.. not always the poor cousins.. in some places they rule the roost. On using covid to attack and diminish job security, one VC had the gall to say that academics should be grateful to have a job. "UK’s reputation as an international leader in research" based on whose opinion? HR planning and succession planning at universities- is non existent. Most dont have a clue as to what they are doing. They are just there to rubber stamp whatever the managers ask them to do. Yeah.. the survey is the issue right? ..If staff have to use surveys to make a point, then something is seriously wrong with the work culture.
"The smart people hate the routine tasks that are necessary to keep things going and divest them to the bureaucrats and academics with a bureaucratic mindset." - this comment from Tom Gardiner is spot on. At least partly, academics brought it upon themselves. They lived in this dream world of ideas and projects and papers while some of those among them self selected into managerial roles (many of them failing academics) and this power grabbing by pseudo managers have led to the erosion of any power to control and decide on things that influence their careers and ultimately lives.Unfortunately that horse has bolted....