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  • Executive summary
  • Section 1: Introduction and context
    • 1.1 Purpose of this report
    • 1.2 Introduction
    • 1.3 Key strategic challenges for the HE sector
  • Section 2: HE Workforce profile in 2009
    • 2.1 Size and shape of the HE workforce
    • 2.2 Academic staff: disciplines at risk?
    • 2.3 Modes of working and contract status
    • 2.4 Age profile of the HE workforce
    • 2.5 HE workforce data
  • Section 3: Key challenges for HE workforce planning
    • 3.1 Challenges for the HE workforce of the future
    • 3.2 Issues affecting different occupational groups in HE
    • 3.3 Trends affecting academic and professional/support staff
    • 3.4 Common themes in institutional strategies for the future
    • 3.5 Aligning institutional strategy with income
  • Section 4: Higher education pay and pensions
    • 4.1 Context for higher education pay
    • 4.2 Key challenges for pay
    • 4.3 Context for higher education pensions
    • 4.4 Key challenges for HE pensions
  • Section 5: Supporting a sustainable HE workforce for the future
    • 5.1 Projections and analysis of the HE workforce of the future
    • 5.2 Recruitment and retention
    • 5.3 Turnover rates
    • 5.4 Career progression
  • Section 6: Maintaining a high-quality workforce
    • 6.1 Performance management
    • 6.2 Equality and diversity
    • 6.3 Leadership development
    • 6.5 Making HE an employer of choice
    • 6.6 HE workforce capacity to meet the challenges of the future
  • Section 7: Meeting the challenges with effective human resources management
    • 7.1 The solutions that effective HRM can offer
    • 7.2 Developing and embedding effective approaches to performance management
    • 7.3 Employee engagement
    • 7.4 The policy landscape for HRM in HE
  • Section 8: Conclusion
  • List of abbreviations

Executive summary


This report considers English higher education (HE) in its global context and the major considerations and challenges for its workforce. It identifies the key issues for the HE workforce, and provides evidence to inform future policy decisions and to assist in institutional strategic planning. This document underpins the companion publication 'The higher education workforce framework 2010: overview report' see note 1, providing additional data, examples, analysis and commentary.

Key points

We consider issues in seven key areas of workforce development:

  1. Context for HE and its workforce in 2010.
  2. HE workforce profile in 2008-09.
  3. Key challenges for HE workforce planning.
  4. HE pay and pensions.
  5. Supporting a sustainable HE workforce for the future.
  6. Maintaining a high-quality workforce.
  7. Meeting the challenges with effective human resource management.

In each we have identified key findings, achievements and future challenges.

Section 1, Introduction and context, recognises that the future workforce requirements for higher education in England will be influenced by factors that are affecting HE more widely, both nationally and globally. It acknowledges the outstanding results and achievements of the sector in enterprise, research excellence and teaching quality, and identifies the key strategic challenges for the HE sector. Changes in the wider economy will affect the HE sector’s ability to afford future pay increases and pensions contributions; also they will further put pressure on institutions’ capacity to respond to the changing needs of students, employers and other stakeholders. Challenges posed by an ageing population and potential decreases in the 18-21 year-old cohort are also explored.

Section 2, HE workforce profile in 2009, shows an increase of 22,525 members of staff since 2005-06 (a 7.7 per cent rise). It also indicates that numbers of academic staff and students in English higher education institutions (HEIs) underwent sustained growth between 2005-06 and 2008-09, with an increase in student full-time equivalent (FTE) of 69,690 (5 per cent)see note 2 and an increase in academic staffsee note 3 FTE of 5,900 (8 per cent). We present analysis of the academic workforce by discipline and conclude that, despite concerns expressed by the Medical Schools Council, no disciplines are at immediate risk due to problems in supply of staff. We note the rising proportion of researchers on permanent contracts (from 14 to 22 per cent between 2005-06 and 2008-09) but observe that the positive trend is beginning to level off. The age profile of academic staff has remained stable over the last 13 years, with some increase in the proportion of staff aged over 60 in the last four years: fears of a retirement ‘time bomb’ in the academic population are not supported by the data. While the average age of a permanent academic member of staff is 43.9 years, this compares with an average age in the wider UK workforce of 40.9 years in 2008-09.

Section 3, Key challenges for HE workforce planning, draws on work we commissioned from PA Consulting, who developed a set of strategic profiles of HEIs based on their income mix. We propose that a more dynamic and competitive future HE environment will make strategic workforce planning a key priority for HEIs. We note that differentiation of institutional strategy will be important in maintaining distinctive positions for them within the future HE marketplace, and this in turn will imply diversity in the workforce requirements needed by HEIs to deliver their individual strategies. Three fundamental questions about the impact of greater diversification are asked:

  1. How do HEIs ensure they retain the elements that the sector/staff/students value balanced against a need to become more flexible?
  2. Are the current sector-wide employment agreements and frameworks enablers or barriers to greater flexibility?
  3. What could be the potential cost to the HE workforce of having more flexible working conditions?

The section continues with discussion of the challenges and issues affecting different occupational groups in HE, including the greater diversification of the academic role, the drive to reduce costs in support services, and the increased permeability of roles between academic and professional/support staff.

Section 4, Higher education pay and pensions, notes that between 2001 and 2007 pay rises in HE have exceeded inflation in every year bar one. The cumulative total of the HE pay awards in this period is at least 36.5 per cent. There is still a gender pay gap in HEsee note 4, and possible reasons for this are explored. There have been implementation challenges with the Framework Agreementsee note 5, and we note that some HEIs believe it has created inflexibility within pay systems. Future sector pay arrangements and the debates around national pay bargaining are explored, noting that views in the sector are divided over the long-term future of national versus local bargaining. The affordability of awarding automatic annual increments to around 60 per cent of HE staff is questioned. The complicated arrangements for HE pensions is described, as well as the key challenges to affordability posed by increased longevity, falling investment income and the current rate of salary increases. The sector is actively leading on the response to these challenges, through the Employers’ Pensions Forum (EPF), and important reforms to the sector-owned pension schemes – Universities’ Superannuation Scheme and self-administered trusts (SATs)see note 6 – are expected. The EPF will additionally advise on the future of the Local Government Pension Scheme and Teachers’ Pension Scheme, which are not in the sector's ownership but are of equal priority and arguably pose greater risks as the sector has less control over them.

Section 5, Supporting a sustainable HE workforce for the future, explores the key supply and demand issues for HE staff, and presents scenarios for the projected change in permanent academic staff numbers depending on a range of factors (for example the demographic projections for the 18-21 year-old cohort). We note that pressure on finances may affect the way that support staff functions are organised, with an increased drive to improve efficiency and restructure administrative processes. Lack of growth in numbers of UK-domiciled PhD students is discussed, along with the potential benefits and risks of relying on international PhD qualifiers. In some subject areas this reliance may, in the long term, damage the UK’s competitiveness but at the same time will bring the benefits of new international collaborations to the UK. Recruitment and retention of all staff is generally unproblematic, with few shortages being reported. Where problems exist, they tend to be concentrated in particular disciplines. Private sector pay levels are the most commonly cited challenge for recruiting academic staff, though staff turnover remains consistently lower than public and private sector benchmarks. The importance of creating attractive and sustainable career pathways for academic staff, particularly for researchers, is highlighted. Recent sector-led development work to support specific priority staff groups such as clinical academics, technicians and professional/support staff (including new apprenticeship schemes) are described.

Section 6, Maintaining a high-quality workforce, explores issues and interventions which we regard as being the foundations of maintaining a high-quality workforce. While performance management systems have shown notable development over the last decade, the challenge remains for them to be fully embedded across institutions. We explore the potential opportunities for HEIs to revitalise their approach to all strands of equality offered by the new Single Equality Bill, noting the business benefits that successful diversity practice can bring. The sector’s capacity to deliver HE in challenging times requires strong and effective leadership, governance and management (LGM). While there has been substantial growth in LGM investment in leadership development in HE over the last five years, this now needs cascading to middle management levels. The importance of establishing new approaches to talent management and succession planning to attract, retain and develop staff at all levels of the institution is emphasised, alongside the importance of supporting recruitment and retention strategies in an increasingly competitive market. We describe a range of initiatives and recommendations to enable the sector to maintain and enhance its position as an employer of choice (for example working conditions, flexible working and employee wellbeing). The section concludes by considering the capacity of the HE workforce to meet the challenges of the future, describing the challenges for HE leadership, governance, the academic workforce and the related sector bodies.

Section 7, Meeting the challenges with effective human resources management, identifies the role that human resources management (HRM) can play in addressing the challenges and issues highlighted throughout the report. We welcome the much improved quality and capability of human resources (HR) strategy-making and the greater integration of HRM into institutional strategic processes. The shift in attitudes towards the perceived status of HRM is noted; it is now widely recognised and valued as a whole-organisation responsibility, linked to real growth in numbers, expertise and professionalisation of HR practitioners. The sector has risen to the various and substantial challenges and initiatives since 2001 with the dedication of huge effort and resources, resulting in much modernisation of HRM in HE in 2010. The public investment represented by our Rewarding and Developing Staff initiativesee note 7 is regarded as a significant contributor to this success. A range of challenges for the future of HRM in HE has been identified which will require HEIs, sector bodies and Government to develop solutions appropriate to the diverse nature of English HEIs.

Section 8, Conclusion, presents questions for debate by the sector, though we recognise that key issues and challenges for the workforce are the joint responsibility of a range of stakeholders within an autonomous HE sector:

  1. How can the sector become more flexible at a time of change while maximising the talent and commitment of its people?
  2. How can HE pay and reward remain competitive, adequately rewarding people for their contribution, and equitable while also being affordable and not threatening the sector’s future financial sustainability?
  3. National pay bargaining has continued to receive broad support across the sector's employers and trades unions. What is the optimum industrial relations model for the sector to create an environment where the sector's sustainability and success is driven by a motivated, well rewarded and engaged workforce?
  4. How can the sector best support (and subsequently implement) the aims of the Employers’ Pensions Forum to achieve sustainable pensions for the HE workforce in future?
  5. To what extent do existing contracts and university statutes require change to optimise performance management, workforce flexibility and to enable institutions to meet the diverse expectations of staff, students and employers?

Action required

This report is for information.


  1. Published as HEFCE 2010/05 alongside this document on the HEFCE web-site under 2010 Publications.
  2. HESA (2009) 'Students in Higher Education Institutions 2008-09'.
  3. Those academic staff holding a teaching or teaching + research contract.
  4. JNCHES calculated the gender pay gap in HE to be 20.3 per cent: 'Review of Pay and Finance Data' (December 2008), page 68.
  5. The 2004 framework agreement for the modernisation of pay structures in HE.
  6. SATs are pension schemes operated by individual HEIs, usually for support staff in pre-1992 HEIs.
  7. Further information about the Rewarding and Developing Staff initiative.

Date: 1 February 2010

Ref: HEFCE 2010/05a

To: Heads of HEFCE-funded higher education institutions

Of interest to those
responsible for:

Human resources, Institutional planning and finance

Enquiries should be directed to:

Amy Norton, Rachel Pennington or Alison Johns, tel 0117 931 7025, 0117 931 7394 or 0117 931 7069, e-mail, or