HESA spring 2023: staff numbers

Like incessant rain and semester one final exams, the annual release of HESA data is one of the first indicators that winter is ending and spring is here.

David Kernohan is Deputy Editor of Wonkhe

If you are thinking that’s a bit premature, by the time we get the full data (late February) we’ll have snowdrops and daffodils in bloom. I promise you.

The first of two releases this week offers an initial look at staff data – by which I mean primarily academic staff data, as this year 87 providers in England and Northern Ireland opted out of the (optional) submission of data on all the rest of the people that make universities work.

Growth story

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The growth in student numbers has been the dominant trend of the previous two years. Unexpected A level results have made for two years of bumper undergraduate recruitment, and the inflation-depleted value of the unit of resource has meant more postgraduate students too. Somebody needs to teach all these students, and consequently there has been significant growth in “teaching only” and “teaching plus research” academic contracts.

As we saw last week, many providers appear to have long term plans for a steady state or a return to the norm – so many of these new roles are fixed term rather than permanent. However, proportionally the trend is shifting slowly towards permanent contracts.

Who are academics?

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Just 0.7 per cent of the professoriate are Black – a numerical (around 160 to around 165) but not a proportional rise as the total number of professors has also increased. I feel like I write this every year, but this feels like it is nowhere near enough – the proportion of all academic staff that are Black has increased (up from 2.3 per cent to 2.6 per cent) but waiting for this meagre increase to wash through the hierarchy does not feel like the answer.

The proportion of academic staff from the EU continues an inexorable post-Brexit trend, dipping below 17 per cent for the first time. A brief numerical rally last year has been reversed – with most of the gap filled with non-EU recruitment. However, there are more professors from an EU country than ever before.

The growth in academic staff numbers has primarily focused on what in other professions would be considered middle-career ages (36-45), and this year is no exception. It is likely that this represents a first job for many who have worked on temporary contracts since post-doctoral days. The peak time for becoming a professor is in the later years of your career (56-65) – though there are numerical gains in the number of professors aged between 46 and 55 this represents a proportional drop.

Zero hours

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There’s been a rise in the number of academic zero hour contracts in use in the sector, contrary to employer commitments to minimise their use – from 3,650 last year we are at 4,420, of which the majority are hourly paid. The growth has been in fixed term zero hours contracts – possibly the most precarious available employment conditions.

A note on “atypical” contracts – HESA reports that these refer to contracts that:

  • Are for less than four consecutive weeks – meaning that no statement of terms and conditions needs to be issued.
  • Are for one-off/short-term tasks – for example answering phones during clearing, staging an exhibition, organising a conference. There is no mutual obligation between the work provider and working person beyond the given period of work or project. In some cases, individuals will be paid a fixed fee for the piece of work unrelated to hours/time spent.
  • Involve work away from the supervision of the normal work provider – but not as part of teaching company schemes or for teaching and research supervision associated with the provision of distance learning education.
  • Involve a high degree of flexibility often in a contract to work as-and-when required – for example conference catering, student ambassadors, student demonstrators.

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