University staff in London are least happy in work

High costs, long commutes and insecure jobs may explain figures from Best University Workplace Survey 2015

August 20, 2015
Packed tube train in London evening rush hour
Source: Alamy
Squeezed: ‘junior academics in London must rent in the expensive private sector and face the daily grind of a long commute’

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University staff working outside London are happier about their work and their employers than their capital-based counterparts, figures from Times Higher Education’s survey of the sector’s workforce shows.

Previously unreleased results from the Best University Workplace Survey 2015 – released to coincide with the launch of the 2016 poll – reveal that employees at London universities have significantly lower job satisfaction scores than those located in almost every other region.

When asked if they would recommend working at their university to others, just 42 per cent of staff at London universities say they would and 40 per cent say they would not; the remainder were undecided.

In contrast, 74 per cent of those in northeast England would recommend their university to others, while only 15 per cent would not.

Higher education staff in other regions also report high levels of happiness with their institution: 70 per cent of university employees in the East Midlands, the West Midlands and Yorkshire and Humberside speak positively of their institution.

Quizzed on whether they gain satisfaction from their work, staff at London universities are less happy than those elsewhere. Of the capital’s survey respondents, 73 per cent agree with the proposition.

In contrast, job satisfaction scores in eight of the 11 other regions exceed 80 per cent, with Yorkshire and Humberside (84 per cent) and the East Midlands (84 per cent) topping the chart.

Ed Byrne, president and principal of King’s College London, said that the results may reflect the fact that although London is “one of the major international cities for university life”, it is “unusual in that universities are a fairly small part of the ecosystem in what is arguably the world’s greatest city today”.

This has “huge advantages” for academia generally, but there are potential disadvantages for individuals as London’s campuses are “largely city universities in and part of London, which makes a sense of community more difficult at times”, Professor Byrne said.

The “social and financial pressures of living in a world city may be greater than elsewhere”, he added.

Andrew Oswald, professor of economics at the University of Warwick and an expert on happiness and the assessment of life satisfaction, agreed that London’s high cost of living and long commutes help to explain the results, which are based on answers from more than 4,150 staff at 140 institutions.

But lower satisfaction levels in London could not be blamed solely on living costs because staff in the relatively high-cost South East of England reported much higher happiness levels, Professor Oswald said.

Academics in London are more likely to make “deleterious” comparisons with better-paid friends and affluent neighbours, which increase their discontent, he said.

“There are an awful lot of millionaires in London, and as a very dense city, it’s hard to avoid the silver Range Rovers,” he said.

Academics in London are also more likely to be the lower earner in their own household if their partner is a well-paid City professional, which can lead to “invidious comparisons”, he added.

Benjamin Poore, a teaching fellow at Queen Mary University of London’s School of English and Drama, believes that the results reflect the lower levels of job security “peculiar” to London universities.

“There are many large institutions that are often on the lookout for hourly paid and sessional teaching, which can afford individuals excellent opportunities and experience,” said Dr Poore, who added that many of his friends and colleagues work across more than one institution.

However, he said, “being hourly paid or fractional staff too often means existing on the fringes of an institution, with no office space or indeed web page to speak of”.

“It is very easy to feel ‘on the outside’ as an early career researcher or hourly paid lecturer in London, buffeted from one short-term, part-time contract to the next,” he added.

Keith Simpson, president of the University and College Union branch at City University London, described the capital as a great place to work as an academic but noted that its “sheer expense” affects job satisfaction.

“Junior academics have little chance of getting on the property ladder, are forced to rent in the expensive private sector and face the daily grind of a long commute to and from work,” he said. “It is little wonder that working in London may not quite live up to what it should be”.

I would recommend working at my university to others Agree %
North East  74.2
East Midlands 70.3
Yorkshire and Humberside 70.0
West Midlands 69.7
South East (not London) 68.3
North West 62.5
Scotland 56.4
Wales 51.2
South West 50.3
East of England 50.0
London 42.0

Note: Results from Northern Ireland not included due to small sample size.
Source: Times Higher Education’s Best University Workplace Survey 2015

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Print headline: London has the UK’s least happy workforce

Reader's comments (3)

I was approached for a position at a London university last year and I just couldn't get the numbers to add up - to have a similar lifestyle to the one I currently have, I worked out that I would need a pay increase of at least £50,000 or I would have to buy an inferior house (and area) to the one I currently live in and commute for near two hours each way each day - it just didn't make sense. It makes even less sense if you are like me and being an academic is a job not a lifestyle.
I am not surprised people are less happy in London. I live in a village in a nice house with a big garden. If I had my job in London I agree with Charles about needing a £50k pay rise, but even then I probably couldn't find a similar property in London. Anyway, the beer is rubbish in London, and so is the tap water.
It helps to be brought up a Londoner (as I was). Then at least you don’t feel you’re in an alien land, even if you sometimes fear the city is being overwhelmed by alien cultures. But these have come and gone over the centuries, or been assimilated. Nevertheless I groaned inwardly when a happy and successful postdoc in a rural idyll (Exeter) brought me, in 1980, the reward of a lectureship in “The Smoke”, as the capital used to be somewhat unfairly known (Westfield, then Queen Mary). To my surprise, the academic environment in the smaller colleges of the great octopus (The University of London) was relaxed and friendly. Nobody thought the worst if you compressed your teaching and administration into three days a week, and stayed home the other two to focus on writing. In fact it was largely the norm. Better than this, London was still the focus of so much of the UK’s academic life that interaction and stimulus was in abundance, and travel to other places at home and abroad just that little bit easier. This all added up to productivity without pressure, and the commute was useful for tutorial marking and flicking through the pages of Current Contents. Even walking over London Bridge each day stirred the patriot in me just enough to dull the stress of the rush hour. The downside was, as ever, the cost of living set against academic pay; for much of my early career my salary matched the earnings of a London bus driver, and on promotion to Senior Lecturer equalled those of the Tube drivers who brought me to work. There were no frills, but one subtle (and unspoken) advantage was that you couldn’t socialise with your colleagues outside the workplace, or return to the lab after dinner or at weekends, paradoxically making your world a little wider and less obsessive. How much advantage remains in being an academic in London? One suspects the financial stress is the same, or worse. Where once you could have a reasonable family life if your partner was a teacher, secretary or nurse, now it seems you need an accountant, doctor or City Slicker. But viewed overall, the academic buzz in London is as loud as ever. Are not Imperial. UCL and Kings world class, driven by their aggressive target-setting? And Queen Mary not the ninth best in the UK? And St. Pancras not the runaway choice for the Francis Crick Institute? And our city the cultural hub of the world? How can we fail? But as the small college ethos dies, colleagues still working complain of being overwhelmed by multiple agendas and targets, the one fatal feeling that can turn London from an opportunity to a hell hole. Of all things that shouldn’t be threatened the most important is the personal space we were once allowed to find our individual ways of coping with the capital. Beware: London’s academic prowess is a delicate flower and needs special treatment.

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