Why I predict a looming staff crisis in higher education

November 7, 2003

A government minister who came to talk to local union activists at Leeds University declared that the problems of university staff were not high on the government's agenda because they were not something that government was greatly lobbied about. But I believe they will soon have to be because a staff crisis is looming.

The retirement of the 1960s/70s generation of academics is certain over the next five to ten years. A middle generation or two is largely missing - the 1980s people who could not get permanent academic posts during the harsh Thatcher period of spending cuts. The mass retirements are likely to coincide with a recruitment hiatus as our latest graduates emerge with huge debts into a relatively healthy economy where other jobs are available. They could be forgiven for deciding that the rigours of an academic career (for which at least another three years of study is required, followed by temporary contracts on low salaries, followed by an expectation of long hours for pay not that much higher) are not the most attractive or viable options.

There are many reasons for this. Autonomy, status and pay have all been severely eroded since the 1970s. Stresses are greater, student-to-staff ratios have doubled, leading to a more impersonal, factory-like atmosphere, while a plethora of regulatory mechanisms, such as the research assessment exercise and a succession of teaching assessment systems, have induced an unhappy sense of constant surveillance and pressure to do more.

As the mass retirements kick in and successors are found to be thin on the ground, the government is likely to find its higher education targets foundering. Those who are persuaded to lecture are unlikely to be the brightest and most sought-after of their cohorts; universities will have to take whomever they can and adapt to a high turnover. The quality of British higher education, once internationally recognised, will have begun a downward spiral as decline in the quality of staff and poor reputation reinforce each other.

The problem of recruitment and retention of personnel is not, of course, unique to higher education. In other parts of the public sector too, staff - be they social workers, nurses, GPs, teachers, nursery staff or even forensic pathologists - are in short supply. They are largely an ageing workforce; about one-third of public-sector workers are in their 50s. The source of the problem might be referred to as "the public-sector paradox" - if the government tries to improve the quality of services to "consumers" by over-regulating, overmonitoring, pressuring and exploiting those who deliver them, the quality will decline in the long term because it will be difficult to find staff.

Labour's intentions are sound. Unlike Thatcherism - which harboured a genuine hatred of the welfare state and its labourers, preferring to see services delivered by charities and private firms, or paid for directly by individuals and their insurance companies - Labour, on the whole, wants public services to succeed. But its endless regulatory mechanisms, with targets, rules, audits, labelling and threats, undertaken as though the same relentless demands can be made of human beings as of computers, are driving the workforce away. There has to be a balance, with genuine concern for those who deliver public services and the realities of the jobs they do.

Meanwhile, bringing down the portcullis on early retirement - as seems to have happened with the teaching profession, but not yet with academia - will only defer the problems of shortage and increase the stress on those who continue to work. We need government to treat the workforce better so that they want to stay - and so that others want to join.

Lorraine Harding
Semi-retired lecturer in social policy
University of Leeds

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