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08 December 2021

Report reveals big changes to staffing patterns at UK universities

Centralisation has been on the rise, while the autonomy of academic departments has declined

empty seats

The global explosion in university enrolment rates and in the size of institutions has transformed their staffing patterns and organisation, according to a new report.

Published by the Policy Institute at King’s College London, the research provides the first in-depth study of 21st century changes in the UK university sector, and underlines their scale and impact.

Funded by the Nuffield Foundation, the report’s authors are Professor the Baroness Alison Wolf, a member of the Augar Review of Post-18 Education & Funding, and Dr Andrew Jenkins.

 Observers of contemporary higher education frequently complain of growing “managerialism” and growth in insecure, short-term teaching contracts. Using the UK’s unique workforce database, and case-studies of six contrasting institutions, the researchers examined whether and why such changes had occurred. The report confirms major changes in both administrative and academic employment, alongside extensive centralisation and the decline of the autonomous academic department.

The report finds that, since the turn of the century, numbers of senior managerial and administrative posts have risen very markedly. Staff classified as “managers and non-academic professionals” at UK universities increased some 60 per cent over 12 years, from just under 32,000 in the academic year 2005/06 to almost 51,000 in 2017/18.

At the same time, the number of technicians and of secretarial posts, supporting academics, declined. Managers and managerial professionals made up a fifth of all non-academic staff in 2005/06, but this had risen to more than a quarter by 2017/18. More and more decisions about staffing are taken at the centre, with a commensurate hollowing-out of the traditional academic department.

Within universities, ongoing growth in non-academic appointments is justified by both the need to compete and market degrees globally, and by the importance of the “student experience” as measured by government surveys such as the National Student Survey. However, the authors conclude that the structure of senior leadership teams means that there are few barriers to “upward drift” in pay and seniority – “in sharp contrast to the situation with academic posts, where scrutiny was extensive”.

Among academics, teaching-only posts at UK universities increased at five times the rate of “traditional” academic roles between 2005/06 and 2018/19. Numbers rose by more than 80 per cent, compared with a rise of 16 per cent over the same period in more traditional roles with both teaching and research responsibilities. Growth was most marked in the Russell Group and the faster a university grew, the more it increased its use of teaching-only staff.

However, the move to casualised and part-time teaching staff has been fairly limited compared to “competitor” university systems, such as those in the US or Australia. The report ascribes this to the government’s Research Excellence Framework, which determines direct funding allocations but also a university’s international reputation. The higher its research reputation, the higher the fees it can charge to overseas students. UK universities therefore have a strong interest in hiring “research-active” academics, but use teaching-only staff to cover vacancies, including those created by academics who are “bought out” for research, and to smooth staffing when student numbers change.

Baroness Alison Wolf CBE, Professor of Public Sector Management at King’s College London, said:

“It is striking how far expensive changes seem to have occurred without being underpinned by a clear strategy. Increased centralisation is also a concern. Large centralised bureaucracies are not good at innovation, which is the lifeblood of universities.”

About the Nuffield Foundation
The Nuffield Foundation is an independent charitable trust with a mission to advance social well-being. It funds research that informs social policy, primarily in Education, Welfare, and Justice. It also funds student programmes that provide opportunities for young people to develop skills in quantitative and scientific methods. The Nuffield Foundation is the founder and co-funder of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, the Ada Lovelace Institute and the Nuffield Family Justice Observatory. The Foundation has funded this project, but the views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily the Foundation. Visit

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