Nearly two thirds of academics set to leave HE sector – report

Younger staff are most likely to want to leave, report finds.

25 March 2022

The majority of academics are considering leaving the profession over pay, working conditions and pensions, a new report has found.

In a survey of nearly 7,000 staff at more than 100 institutions by the University and College Union (UCU), two-thirds of respondents – 66% – said they were likely or very likely to leave the university sector within the next five years because of pensions, pay and working conditions.

This figure rose for younger members of staff, with 81% of those aged between 18 and 29 saying they were likely to leave the sector.

Nearly three in four researchers said they would leave higher education over pay and working conditions, while for postgraduate students, this figure was four in five.

UCU said this raised questions about the UK’s future status as an international leader on research.

The report noted that around 70,000 academics are employed on temporary fixed-term contracts and 66,000 more are employed on contracts lacking basic employment protections.

UCU general secretary Jo Grady said  the findings for younger academics were particularly concerning.

“Those who are literally about to embark on… what they’ve worked so hard for in terms of a research or teaching career – they’re actively planning to leave the sector before they’ve even got their feet under the table,” she said.

“I don’t think it’s a stretch to say… higher education is literally eating its young, it is cannibalising itself,” she added.

One research academic said in the report: “I don’t want the life of an academic, where one is expected to do the equivalent of three jobs while continuously fighting not only for research funding, but for fair pay.

“My partner left academia and earns substantially more than I. I see very little future joy and fulfilment in advancing within the institution as it is today.”

Most respondents – 57% – were unhappy about spending their career in higher education whilst 88% had no optimism for the future of the sector. Many said that work overload was contributing to issues with their mental health, with some even reporting suicidal ideation.

Dr Grady said: “Staff are sounding the alarm about a crisis of morale and faith in UK universities that threatens the future of the entire sector.

“A decade of decline in working conditions, pay and pensions has left staff feeling totally demoralised and preparing to leave the sector in their thousands. This report should shock employers and government ministers into getting a grip of the situation before it’s too late.

“By attacking their own staff repeatedly and ignoring their longstanding concerns, vice chancellors have cultivated a toxic working culture that has resulted in the youngest members of staff being the most likely to leave the sector in the next five years.

“This is a ticking time bomb, which could do untold damage to teaching and research in what is held up to be a world-renowned sector.”

A spokesperson for Universities UK said: “The excellence of our staff is central to UK universities’ global reputation for teaching and research.”

“We want UCU and employers to work closely and positively together on issues of common interest to ensure that our highly respected university sector offers a high quality and positive experience for both students and staff.

“UUK looks forward to assisting the work of UCEA, UCU and other unions plus individual universities to ensure higher education institutions offer supportive working environments in which staff can thrive, alongside attractive remuneration and benefits.

“The changes to USS pensions about to take effect from April 1 2022 will see staff continuing to receive very good pensions at affordable contribution levels – USS will remain one of the most attractive pension schemes in the country. ”

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