The UK needs to consider whether it has too many academic staff in the face of the financial crisis, an analysis by the research councils warns.
The Research Councils UK report, Sustainability of the UK Research Workforce, takes stock of the number of academic staff in the system and concludes that the academy must consider whether a continued rise in numbers remains appropriate.
"The long-term growth in the number of academic staff across disciplines is increasing and the sector needs to consider whether this is sustainable in the current economic downturn," it says.
The report was published last month before a further round of cuts to higher education funding was announced in the annual grant letter.
Using data from the Higher Education Statistics Agency and other sources, the analysis examines by discipline the number of academic staff, their age and the percentage who are from overseas. It identifies a 14 per cent increase in the number of full-time academic staff employed by UK universities between 2003-04 and 2007-08 to about 141,000.
While this is less steep than the 20 per cent rise seen in the previous five-year period, the report notes that staffing levels have grown in all disciplines. The biggest rise is in mass communications (up 33 per cent), while the smallest is in veterinary science and agriculture (up 5 per cent).
The proportion of academic staff aged over 60 "steadily" rose over the period 2003-04 to 2006-07 from 6 to 8 per cent, it adds.
Education had the highest proportion of permanent academic staff aged 55 or over (39 per cent), while chemistry and physics had the highest below 35 (more than 40 per cent).
The report also notes a rise in the percentage of overseas academics, with mathematics seeing the greatest percentage increase. Languages and maths have the highest proportion of non-UK academics (each more than 20 per cent).
The report also looks at demand and supply of staff, concluding that "on the whole" recruitment and retention is not a major problem.
"Problems do exist but tend to be confined to specific occupational groups or subject areas," it says. "The main recruitment difficulties ... are broad concerns about a lack of well-rounded candidates with technical skills, broader competencies such as mathematical capability, and practical work experience."
Potential skills gaps in research are also identified in fields such as language-based area studies, green technologies and health economics.
Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, said cutting staff would be unwise if the UK wished to maintain its international reputation.