Expanding the debate on university staff communities

Higher education is changing rapidly but our conception of how universities are staffed has not kept pace, argues Mary Stuart

Mary Stuart is director of leadership development at Minerva and was vice chancellor of the University of Lincoln

In the past couple of months, we have started to see a conversation about staffing in higher education.

Reports such as the Alison Wolf and Andrew Jenkins report from the King’s Policy Institute, and reflections on Wonkhe from Debbie McVitty and David Kernohan begin to open up debate about how university communities of staff are developing over time and potentially how they should develop into the future.

Understanding the workforce

This is to be welcomed because we seldom discuss staffing in the sector despite the obvious and important point that universities only function effectively if their staff communities are working with and for their universities. Understanding those communities of staff is, therefore, vital to our sector’s success.

Of course, the data we have on roles and responsibilities is dependent on what we collect, so one of the challenges we find in understanding staffing communities, and any changes in staffing, is that the categorisation of staffing is collated at too high a level to really get behind what is going on.

What we do know, and Wolf and Jenkins draw this out, is that there has been a growth in certain groups of staffing, and expectations of staff are changing but how this plays out in different institutions is less clear.

On examining HESA data, Wolf and Jenkins found that there has been an increase in what HESA categorises as “teaching only” academic contracts. Wolf and Jenkins also point out that there has been a significant increase in the number of professional service staff particularly related to the impossible to define and understand “student experience”. They argue, I think correctly, that this is largely because of changes to regulation and the changed emphasis on student satisfaction.

Higher education has seen considerable policy changes, not only in student areas such as widening access and participation and student success measures, prompting a growth in roles necessary to support these policy changes, but also in research policy. Changes to the rules on REF and the distribution of grant funds have affected the definition of what being “research active” means and what activities are necessary to attract research support funds.

We have also seen a growth in expectations on staff to demonstrate effective impact and positive change in society, whether that is within the research impact agenda or in a wider civic responsibility. Again, these policy changes will have affected staff hiring and activities.

The rise of the third space

These changes have led to what Celia Whitchurch describes as third space roles, sitting between academic and professional services. These roles are the ones that have blossomed over the past ten years and include mental health professions, learning and other technologists, careers and employability advisors, research project managers, impact managers, and employer engagement officers.

Some of these posts will be located centrally and some embedded in academic departments depending on the institution.

In HESA terms, however, all simply count as “professional services” but whether their location is centrally based or in an academic department, in most institutions they are very much involved in educating and supporting students or supporting research and translational activities.

Equally, the “teaching only” academic category is a poor reflection of the range of activities that many so-called, in HESA terms, “teaching only” staff undertake. Increasingly, these roles take on beyond teaching, specialist learning activities such as disciplinary employability learning for students, translational and consultancy work for employers, scholarly development of teaching practice, and training for other academics in their disciplinary area, learning technology expertise, and so on.

What matters in both these cases is how these colleagues are located and supported as part of the changing ecosystem in institutions. Making sure these colleagues are integrated into supporting the academic student experience is vital and, as part of that integration and support, appropriate career trajectories should be developed for all these third space university staff to ensure they are properly valued.

These changes in staffing are the result of changing universities. As students enter with different expectations based on different experiences to the previous generation and as government and regulation has placed different requirements on universities so staffing has changed.

Society does not stay the same and in many ways some of the changes we have and are seeing in our societies are the result of knowledge and understandings developed in universities. In this context, why on earth should we expect universities to remain as they were in the middle of the twentieth century? They do and will adapt.

It is important that these adaptations and changes are clearly thought through and that must be the responsibility of all aspects of leadership in a university. However, something else is also happening in the wider society where we need to pay attention.

Changing times

In the wider study of the world of work, there is a significant debate about the effect of the pandemic on people’s working patterns and working choices. Pandemics do change society and one of the most striking elements that is emerging through this pandemic is what is being called the Great Resignation.

During 2020 and 2021, workers resigned their posts in larger numbers than in any other year recorded because they were unable to deal with childcare and homeschooling, and were re-thinking what they valued in life.

There has been a turn towards the non-work philosophy, with a much greater focus on doing what you enjoy while others seek to use their skills to greater effect (and greater reward) in other organisations.

Staffing surveys at the start of 2022 indicate that more than a quarter of workers are planning to change jobs this year.

This is of course, understandably, particularly marked in health care professions and the reasons for these changes are varied and diverse. However, it clearly indicates that there is a need to explore what is happening in our sector as well because if the pandemic is having such an effect on the wider labour market, it would be reasonable to examine effects and patterns in our sector.

So, are we seeing a greater number of people resigning or changing roles in universities? Anecdotally I think the answer is yes. At Minerva, we are seeing more requests for search for a wider range of roles, and colleagues across the country tell me demand for more flexible and part-time working is increasing in the sector, but we need a real review of current patterns of employment and flexible working in HE to know for sure.

We need to understand what is happening at a macro and micro level across the whole sector. It is time to explore our communities in more depth. Work environments have changed and the emotional and stress effects of the pandemic on staff needs greater attention.

While I accept that universities do need to adapt to changes as society changes and refresh their activities and range of expertise, I would also argue that what should not change is the notion that universities are communities of people who need to work together.

There is a great need to provide the development and skills for the workforce and a much greater need to ensure leaders are planning their staffing needs for the future in a deliberate and measured fashion. Wolf and Jenkins argue that the changes we have seen in staffing in universities was not really planned as much as an immediate response to filling gaps. The university community deserves better than that.

Of course, the HE environment is highly volatile and that makes planning difficult but planning with uncertainty in mind is the job of senior leaders and, in universities, planning needs to be debated and discussed across the institution so that the community can respond and take responsibility for decisions taken.

If we are going to have an ongoing successful university sector, looking after our university communities and helping them to evolve and develop in a timely fashion will be central to our future.

8 responses to “Expanding the debate on university staff communities

  1. Thanks for a clear and interesting article. Whilst leaving a senior role last summer didn’t feel part of the Great Resignation for me at the time, I do think the pandemic made many of us focus on what we really enjoyed and for myself that has proved to be positive.

    The perceived separation between academic and professional service roles has always frustrated me and I always sought to break down this divide. Most academics have key professional service staff that they value highly, but many of those still talk about a profusion of “bureaucrats”. As stated in the article much of this is driven by external forces.

    We do need to acknowledge a variety of roles and encourage flexibility. We have to reduce the view that being a research-focused academic is the most prestigious role. We are stuck with a framework that is based mainly on developments in the sixties and nineties, but any move to revise these encounters stiff opposition.

    1. “”We are stuck with a framework that is based mainly on developments in the sixties and nineties, but any move to revise these encounters stiff opposition.”

      Indeed – very dysfunctional in many.

      One of the most baffling rules that still exists in many Universities is that an academic member of staff cannot line manage professional services staff – which in turn means mean that useful configurations are entirely off the table.

      Moreover, in my previous University, even as the Dean I had no control over even the most junior member of professional services staff in the school. Yet I was responsible for all sorts of KPIs!

      1. Thanks for your comments Alan. Leading without line management is one of the particular aspects of university culture isn’t it. I used to enjoy the challenge but I can see it is sometimes frustrating. We do need to find ways to work across boundaries and to a common purpose wherever possible.

    2. Thanks Nigel really appreciate your comments. I do hope your new life is going well for you. I loved my 30+ years in universities but am enjoying supporting colleagues now through my new role at Minerva.

    1. Thanks Niel, Universities always do (and indeed have to) respond to policy changes and demands from government. It is true there are some aspects that I think we would all regret that they have lost. I would very much defend the importance of universities focusing on what their purpose is – to develop and share new knowledge. I would suggest that should sit at the heart of any approach to the university community.

  2. As someone who does not work in a University, this is the first time I have read about their internal staff structures and it is fascinating. It would seem a re-think would be helpful.

    I wonder if they have “cost centres” and if these are in any way linked to outcomes and outputs, and value for money and efficiency in any way?

    Given that staffing costs are likely to be a major part of total costs, has any research been done on benchmarking different Universities?

    How has the partnership between Universities and other HE and FE institutions affected costs and quality?

    Are there useful lessons to be learned from the growth of “Professional Staff” in the Health Sector compared to Universities?

    1. Dear Albert, thanks for your comment. Yes, Universities have done a lot about efficiencies and have developed VfM plans in their various forms of what you call cost centres. There are always lessons to learn from other sectors and there are some great partnerships between health and universities and indeed between F and HE. Always more to do and in current policy more connection with schools and universities. Of course the key thing is the old saying ‘we wouldn’t start from here’ but engaging in a debate about staffing for the future is clearly necessary, so thank you for engaging with your useful thoughts.

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