The future of UK universities at stake as three out of five staff members ready to quit

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The future of UK universities at stake as three out of five staff members ready to quit

A survey report1 published by University and College Union (UCU) this month revealed the poor working conditions and the dipping employee-satisfaction level in one of UK’s most thriving sectors—higher education.

The survey was conducted by UCU, and 7,000 individuals belonging to the higher education sector participated in it. The survey included questions about their level of satisfaction with the current role, their opinions on the current scenario in the higher education sector, and their views on its future.


Decline in the average salary

The report estimates that in the last decade, the average salary of the higher-education staff has declined by 25.5%. Of the survey respondents, 60% reported that they found their salaries unsatisfactory and stated this as the primary reason for considering leaving the sector within the next five years.

Temporary/contractual employments

Of the respondents who stated poor salaries as their reason to leave academia, 57% were contract-based workers and 29% full-time employees.

“I am in my 30s, with student loan debt and on short term, casualised contracts. I often earn - throughout the year - less than the minimum wage. I am the most highly educated person in my family and yet the one on the lowest income,” said a newbie lecturer on an hourly-paid contract at King’s College, London.1

Reduced/no pension

Poor pension schemes was the primary reason why 71% of the respondents who were over 60 years of age and 67% of the respondents from the age group of 18–29 said they would leave academia. The education staff enrolled in the USS pension scheme, “£240k on average has been cut from their retirement income since 2011.”1 This is followed by an additional 35% cut from every employee’s retirement income under the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS).

“Academic pensions used to be a real benefit to working in academia. Starting my first postdoc and finally earning an income, while having to pay off loans for my education until now, and finding out that pensions are cut by 35% is absolutely demotivating. It makes me consider leaving academia altogether, while I wanted to do research and teach since I was 12 years old,” said an academic at the University of Edinburgh who works on a fixed-term contract.1

Demotivated employees

Nearly 90% of the members felt pessimistic about UK’s higher education future. 57% said they were not happy about staying in this sector for the rest of their professional lives, and 78% admitted that their institutions’ failure to address issues related to working conditions has brought down their morale and is the main reason they aren’t able to give their best at work.

A lecturer at Open University, who has been in this sector for over 15 years, said, “I don't think anger, pain, or frustration adequately describe how I feel any longer. There's so much wrong in higher education that I no longer believe it is fixable – the mentality is too engrained, the managers too disconnected, the purpose of education too completely distorted.”1

Micromanaging and poor governance

Many respondents stated the following as the reasons why they would quit academia:

  • the declining statuses of highly reputed universities
  • managerial interference
  • few to no opportunities for staff to voice their opinions on governance structures
  • excessive commercialization of universities

A Southampton University lecturer, who has been serving in the higher education for over 30 years expresses his concern: “There was a time when Council and VCs could be held to account by Senate and other consultative bodies. For various reasons, those days are long gone. There is now very little consultation. Without reform of governance, the British university sector is stuffed and will stop being world-leading within a generation.”1

The increasing number of university staff members dealing with reduced salaries and retirement schemes, and job insecurity is pushing them down the path of depression, anxiety, and hopelessness. According to the UCU’s report1, around 50% of the respondents reported signs of depression. They admitted that the lack of efforts of the government and higher education management makes them feel deeply undervalued and undermined.

There has been an increase in the tuition fee income to £21.5bn over the last five years.2 The average annual salary of vice-chancellors is £269k and has gone up as high as £500k. Yet, the staff expenditure has reduced by 7.2% in 2019–20 as compared to 2009–10, as per a Higher Education Statistics Analysis (HESA) report.3 In the race to stay ahead of competitor universities, extravagant amounts are spent on infrastructure, advertising, and management consultations.  The authorities have been neglecting the core resource of universities, the soul of the academic world -- the university staff.

With the concerning number of experienced and beginner staff members planning to leave academia, the future of UK’s higher education seems to be in dire straits. Without any action to retain academics in the sector, existing talent will be lost and fresh talent unwilling to enter. These numbers and views of the respondents call for urgent action from the authorities.



1. UK higher education A workforce in crisis. University and College Union. (March, 2022)

2. USS publishes Report and Accounts covering 'an extraordinary year'. USS. (27 July, 2021).

3. Higher Education Staff Statistics: UK, 2020/21. HESA. (1 February, 2022).


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Published on: Apr 01, 2022


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