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HESA spring 2021 – overall staff numbers

The yearly round of HESA data releases begins - David Kernohan looks at new data on overall staff numbers, staff characteristics, and employment terms.
This article is more than 3 years old

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

It’s probably best we get this out of the way early – this new data from 2019-20 was collected before the Covid-19 pandemic.

This first chunk of the HESA Staff release gives us a snapshot – as of 1 December 2019 – of the last moments of the “old normal”. Like much sector data, the decision by the Office for Students to make parts of the return optional in England (specifically on non-academic staff) has degraded the release just enough to make parts of it unusable.

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Here we are focused at a sector level and on staff employment details. There’s data on staff numbers by occupation – in which we learn there are just over 220 female senior academics in the UK, compared with just over 270 males (recall HESA routinely rounds numbers to the nearest five). At “professor” level just 28 per cent are female.

Atypical, part-time, hourly paid

Once again the number of staff on “academic atypical” contracts has fallen. It’s worth noting that, contrary to popular belief, these are not the part-time, hourly-paid, army of academics. Atypical contracts are generally for less than four weeks and are for short term tasks – this is demonstrated in that the 33,335 staff on atypical academic contracts have a combined FTE of 5,190.

There is also data on fixed term contracts, numbers here continue to grow (we’re up to 74,580 compared to 69,340 in 2015-16) though this is broadly in line with academic staff growth overall. However, we are seeing a steady rise in the number of academic staff on teaching-only contracts – we’re now up to 32 per cent of all academic staff, with female staff still over represented in that number.

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In terms of fixed-term, hourly-paid, academic staff we get a number for that too – and that number is 18,750, with 930 on zero-hours contracts.

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Representation at senior levels

It’s clear that Black staff are still under-represented in academia, particularly at high levels. The number of Black academics who are returned as professors (155, 3.28 per cent of all Black academic staff) and other senior academic levels (50, 1.06%) remains the same as last year. At this point in the cycle we don’t get the data we need to drill into the specifics – figures on Black senior academic managers and Black female professors are famously embarrassing for the sector, we wait until 18 February for that moment when the national press covers this sorry state of affairs.

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There’s still a sex difference too – 13.81 per cent of male academics are professors, compared to 6.08 per cent of female academics. To be clear here, some professors may be returned as other senior academic staff (for example, heads of department or faculty) but this would not make an appreciable difference to this statistic.

What would we expect to see next year?

With any luck, this time next year we’ll be looking at data on the state of the higher education workforce on the other side of a global pandemic. There have been high-profile redundancy programmes already, there will likely be more – but the more insidious practice of not appointing replacements for staff who leave, or appointing at a lower level or on a temporary basis, will also have an impact.

A lot of what happens depends on government decisions as well as those made by providers – in particular institutional managers will be watching the decisions made by the Office for the Independent Adjudicator that could have a wider impact on student fee refunds. Other decisions made about university funding, for example as part of the response to the Augar report, will have an impact on university liquidity too.

The other known unknown is the impact of Brexit. Last year saw a continuation – if also a slowing – of the trend to growth in European academic numbers. Next year is unlikely to see this continue.

One response to “HESA spring 2021 – overall staff numbers

  1. Nothing unexpected, for all the efforts to ‘tick the right boxes’, people don’t/won’t ‘fit’ the narrative, and with so many now caring for children they usually let the education system look after that’s likely to skew the numbers even more perhaps.

    Many female academics find becoming a parent changes their personal need to succeed in academia even with all the support put in place to enable, I’ve known several who’ve gone from mixed or only research full time to teaching part-time by their own choice to achieve their newly preferred work/life balance, some male academics too, though most plan to go back to research the Universities need for student ‘bums on seats’ means teaching contracts are often easier to come by after a career break of any kind.

    Caring for aging parents also often falls to daughters, single children especially so, so there may be other issues they are dealing with outside of the Universities control and remit that few except close friends even know about, female academic support networks can and do help, something most male academics don’t have when in the same situation.

    The bigger problem is the number who to make ends meet have multiple teaching contracts in different Universities, one History Lecturer I know of travels from her home in Oxford, where she has a teaching contract, to Cambridge, Reading and Winchester to teach on similar part-time contracts, this is unsustainable and mentally if not physically damaging in the long term, do the (in)human resources departments know or even care?

    There is much work to do on this, but failure to acknowledge personal choices made for personal reasons is a major problem, we are all individuals, trying to force us into boxes where we don’t want to be is bad for us, students and ultimately the University sector, deal with discrimination effectively and allow people to make their own choices.

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