Debbie is Editor of Wonkhe

The new research report from Alison Wolf and Andrew Jenkins for the King’s Policy Institute on HE staffing trends drives home the point that the academic, professional, administrative and support structures of traditional university staffing are a product of history, culture and circumstance. The way things are done now need not be the way they are done in future.

In their analysis of HESA data on higher education staff between 2005-06 and 2018-19 among 117 “generalist” institutions (highly specialised and independent institutions were excluded from analysis) Wolf and Jenkins identify two key trends:

  • “Remarkable” growth in the proportion of academic staff on teaching-only contracts, with absolute numbers rising by 80 per cent during the time studied – driven largely by universities in the Russell Group, albeit on a scale rather less than that seen in the same period in the US and Australia, and;
  • Growth in the numbers of managers and non-academic and professional staff – particularly those employed to support “the student experience”.

If you are curious about how this plays out in your context, DK has plotted the change in academic, non-academic, and academic atypical (less than four weeks in duration, for one-off tasks, involve work away from the supervision of the provider, or involve a high level of flexibility) returned to each cost centre between 2014-15 and 2018-19. You can select your provider of interest via the menu at the top.

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These large-scale trends – which, of course, manifest in different ways and to different extents in different parts of the sector – may come as no surprise to those working in universities. Many working in the sector have direct experience of the centralisation of administration, the reduction in autonomy of academic departments, and increasing professionalisation of student services in universities over the past few decades.

Wolf and Jenkins suggest, though, based on in-depth case studies of a sample of six universities – that these staffing changes are, for the most part, not strategic. In other words, university decision-makers are for the most part reacting to external and internal pressures in staffing decisions rather than actively attempting to, for example, shift the locus of power in universities.

The report goes into detail about those pressures and how they work – competitive research performance, international and home student recruitment, and regulation stand out in particular. But knowing the very sensible and pragmatic reasons why something might be happening isn’t the same as saying it has to be that way. The opportunity is there to assess whether there is scope to organise things differently and whether that might address some of the issues the report identifies.

The student experience

It’s hard not to conclude from the data that somehow the collective concept of “the student experience” has lost sight of teaching and learning as a pretty fundamental aspect of that experience.

While the use of short term teaching staff makes a lot of sense in the context of ebbing and flowing student numbers in different courses – and even more so as a response to research “buy-out” or sabbaticals for highly research-intensive institutions – the report notes that data from the US indicates that there is a price to pay both in staff wellbeing and student outcomes.

This might be less about the absolute imperative that students be taught by research-active academics on permanent contracts than about the less than ideal working conditions for teaching-only staff, who often have heavy workloads, may work across several institutions, and may not benefit from such luxuries as office space.

Teaching-only staff might be highly qualified subject experts with excellent pedagogical credentials – but their reduced ability to work alongside course teams, and to build relationships with students – essentially, to be a full member of a learning community – must take a toll. Bear in mind that teaching-only staff may also conduct research in their “spare” time, knowing full well that without a research portfolio their chance of a permanent academic post is non-existent, and the scene is set for burnt-out staff, and a patchy student experience.

In reality, at institutional level, the growth of professional staff may not be coming at the direct expense of academic appointments, but the debate should be had as to where the student experience “sits” in the university – especially if, as the report suggests, the business case for increasing professional headcount can frequently be made with reference to NSS scores and the student experience, but the same is not true for academic posts.

There’s a very credible argument that services like student welfare and careers support demand specialist professionals to execute them well. Certainly, simply handing over responsibility for these services to academic departments and sacking all the professional staff with their accumulated knowledge would be a recipe for chaos (and, most likely, terrible NSS scores).

But the parallel organisation of “student academic experience” and “other student experience” creates fragmentation, with frustration among staff and students that neither side seems to be aligned with the other. Centralised services often have staff embedded in faculties or departments, or account manager-style key contacts in hopes of addressing this dysfunction, but this system assumes that the academic-professional divide must be set in stone.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard that the answer to addressing a particular challenge – employability, retention, inclusion, sustainability – is to embed it in departmental practice and curriculum. Because it is understood that the course and department remain the primary way that students interact with their institution and, importantly, it’s understood that students’ knowledge and development is contextualised through their academic discipline.

The latter is especially true of professional and personal development and skills acquisition but it can also be seen as applying to emotional developmental experiences. Trust is likely to be higher for relationships within an academic department than for the corporate institution in terms of student communication, and understanding phenomena such as student anxiety can’t be achieved without analysis of how the curriculum and academic cultures associated with the subject trigger – or support effective processing and management of – powerful emotional responses.

No doubt the sort of effective collaboration between academic and professional departments required to achieve this kind of embedding does happen, but it takes exceptional individuals indeed to overcome the barriers erected by the siloed structure.

The effect of this split is to put the burden of sense-making of their university experience onto the student, who must have the maturity to identify their own particular intellectual, psychological and developmental needs, and the social capital to seek out the service or intervention that will best address them. Clearly, not every student is equipped with this level of agency; a system like this one inevitably privileges those with already well-established networks and personal confidence.

What might an alternative look like?

At the launch of the report, former universities minister David Willetts pointed out that the view in some quarters in Whitehall that too many people are currently accessing full-time degree-level university education has the unfortunate side effect of a failure to prepare for the reality that demand for higher education is set to grow over the next decade.

Some of that demand may be “cooled” by policy interventions such as growing apprenticeships and higher technical opportunities – or by actively restricting degree-level provision – but the overall direction of travel is pretty clear. The result is that, barring the reintroduction of institution-level number controls, the universities that have cashed in on their reputation since the lifting of student number controls will continue to grow – resulting in an emergent tier of mega-institutions.

Whether you think that is a problem depends on your view of the capacity of large institutions to produce a meaningful student experience. In Willetts’s view, the creation of new universities would be a more rational policy response to the challenge, but this doesn’t necessarily account for the continued influence of market forces and the reputational force-field generated by more established institutions.

It is possible, however, to imagine a faculty structure in which responsibility for the core student experience sits within individual faculties. You might have a faculty leadership team with varied cross-cutting responsibilities, overseen by a Dean with line management responsibility for heads of department – with responsibility for creating faculty-level plans that align to the core university mission and strategy, and direct accountability for quality, research performance and student outcomes. Development and sharing of disciplinary and professional knowledge would be a core purpose of the faculty.

You might, within that ecosystem, have some academics for whom research is their primary activity – or some combination of research and service, or research and knowledge exchange – and who might teach classes and supervise students in their area of specialism. There might be others for whom teaching and academic advice to students is their primary activity, who support students to convene academic societies, and have active links with employers and alumni, perhaps coordinating volunteering and service opportunities, and who are active in research and scholarship in their disciplinary area, but with a practical and practice-based focus – and you’d recruit those staff on that basis.

You might also, then, have some “third space” professionals who are also research active – in student data analysis, in disciplinary pedagogies, in student support and development, or in research management. Some of these staff might have an important role as a source of specialist advice to students, especially in the case of complicated welfare issues. Faculty meetings and decision-making structures would have equal representation and solicit insight from each of these kinds of staff, as well as from faculty level student representatives.

And, realistically, you would have administrative staff for the faculty, doing all the relevant financial, operational, and meeting support behind the scenes – but also acting as the first point of contact and source of practical information for students.

Inevitably it would be necessary occasionally to bring in staff on short-term contracts – not least for parental leave or sick leave, as well as research sabbaticals, or unexpected shifts in student numbers in a particular area, and to support large research projects. While the experience of short-term staff is more a function of policy than structure, in theory at least these staff would be entering a well-defined role, with, where relevant, the opportunity to carry out their own research alongside their other duties, in which any loss of relationship with students could be mitigated to some extent by the wider staff team.

In this world, you’d still need central services – perhaps specialist counselling, perhaps central finance, HR, and estates teams, and the like. It’s definitely an open question where admissions should sit. You can move the dial in either direction as far as you like. And there’s no doubt that a devolved structure would bring a different set of problems. You might immediately run into exactly the same set of problems, but on a slightly smaller scale. Change never happens in a vacuum.

But the point is not to advocate for one particular structure over another, but to think at a very high level about how things might be different – if universities didn’t have all the weight of history, culture, and circumstance to contend with.

4 responses to “What’s the best way to staff a university?

  1. Many institutions use technical staff to teach classes. As many of them might be from an industrial or clinical background this is a good idea. Many of the science lab technicians at my institution have doctorates and are lab techs simply because they wanted something more stable than research. Instead of hiring bob-a-job lecturers and offering them terrible contracts they could instead improve the lot of technical staff by offering them a tighter integration with the courses and assignments with which they assist.

    1. Agree that anyone with specialist knowledge and pedagogic understanding can and should teach. However, this depends on how the curriculum is set and how the infrastructure (workload allocation) accommodates for it so that technical staff (and postdocs) aren’t just taken advantage of.

  2. The other obvious here is money. It isn’t possible to operate beyond the financial limits and many HEIs have to do what is most cost efficient, as opposed to what they may want to do. With UK UG fees still fixed at a level almost from a decade ago, cost efficiency on an annual basis is a fact of life for most HEIs.

  3. I’m not sure I’ve seen a compelling argument here for moving away from “centralisation” of professional services. It just seems to be a way of swapping 1 set of problems for a completely different (but no less challenging) set of problems. Indeed, the “matrix management” you would end up with (e.g. for an Admissions professional embedded in a faculty) is a recipe for disastrous inconsistency and confusion in my mind.

    It strikes me that the main challenge here is the section on “put the burden of sense-making of their university experience onto the student”. A challenge which may be better (though admittedly only partly) addressed by technology and appropriate routing/initiation of enquiries/conversations.

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