Universities and colleges have been hitting the headlines in recent months, from strikes over pay and pensions, as well as a potential Brexit hit to EU academic staff.

But what impact is this having on recruitment and retention in the sector?

According to the 2019 Higher Education Workforce Report from the Universities & Colleges Employers Association (UCEA), the higher-education sector faces significant recruitment and retention challenges in medicine, STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects, economics and business.

Brexit is also hitting chemical engineering and modern languages, where most employees are non-UK nationals. UCEA said that to date Brexit had not had a major influence on staffing, although a quarter of HE institutions said it had had a ‘moderate’ impact on both recruitment and retention.

However, according to the Russell Group of leading universities such as Edinburgh and Cambridge, between 2015 – 2016 and 2016 – 2017 there was an 11% rise in the number of EU academics leaving. This was mainly in biosciences, physics, chemistry and engineering. Between 2016 – 2017 and 2017 – 2018, the proportion of new EU academics recruited by the Russell Group from overseas fell from 48% to 43%, meaning a greater proportion of the EU nationals recruited to academic positions were already based here. This suggests the sector may be finding it increasingly difficult to attract EU academics from abroad.

The UCEA report also identified low numbers of early-stage academic staff from ethnic-minority backgrounds and a significant under-representation of women at higher levels. Pay competition from commercial and international competitors also led to recruitment issues.

Despite all these challenges, the typical employee turnover at 5% for academic staff is far less than the 12.8% in other UK organisations. This is helped by more institutions providing flexible working, research support, and pathways from teacher to professor.

Here, four industry experts talk about the appeal of the UK higher-education sector, both to academics at home and abroad, and discuss how best to reel in the brightest talent to their teaching staff.

Institutions are trying to attract a new breed of academic with different skills

Josie Cluer, partner, education lead, EY

“Higher education, like many sectors, is working hard to attract and retain talent in an increasingly competitive global marketplace. Of course, Brexit brings uncertainties around research funding, collaboration and immigration status.

“Like most people, academics choosing to work in the UK do so not just because of the job and the research they get to do but because of the broader attractiveness of the UK as a place to live and work. It is not unusual for UK universities to market their town, local schools, and lifestyle at the same time as marketing their research credentials.

“The way in which Brexit has been interpreted around the world – indicating a more closed country – has not been helpful in attracting talent from overseas who are considering moving their families. At the same time there is increasing competition from universities in other countries, including some in Europe who operate in the English language.

“More broadly, as higher-education institutions become more focused on engaging with employers, the role they play in their local areas, and supporting teaching and learning in different ways, they are thinking about how to attract a new breed of academic with a different set of skills. These include commercial, digital and translation of research into local impact.”

Universities need to sell the credibility, history and quality of British higher education

Sarah Shaw, partner, education practice, Odgers Interim

“I tend to place heads of school and deans. For professor level roles, universities need to reach out to Europe and internationally. That can be difficult given the ‘stickability’ factor – people can be nervous about moving. Brexit is casting a big shadow and making it even harder to get people to move from their roles.

“Universities need to keep selling the credibility of working within British higher education both in its history and quality. They also need to be offering the best possible and attractive packages to attract the right talent.

“We don’t know what impact Brexit will have on funding for the research-intensive institutions, so it is possible that the more teacher-led red-brick universities and colleges may look more attractive in the future. Offering staff the chance to work with commercial groups and businesses by developing closer relationships with them may also be a factor in recruiting the best talent going forward.”

Universities are seeking different types of teaching talent

Elizabeth James, partner and head of education, Berwick Partners

“Supply outstrips demand for academic staff. The question comes down to quality. Since fees have been introduced in England, higher education has become more and more commoditised in that students are more particular about the standard of education that they get. In turn, universities are holding up a yardstick to measure the success or otherwise of an individual teacher’s capability. Universities are seeking different types of teaching talent. The days when you went into academia to do a bit of research and just did a bit of teaching on the side have gone.

“They are looking to recruit people with more of a passion for teaching and working with students. Because there is so much data produced around student incomes and what jobs they go on to do when they graduate, the amount of employable skills that teachers can impart to them is increasingly vital.

“There is also an expectation that teaching staff are very capable when using digital technology. Being able to teach diverse groups of students from around the globe, such as Chinese students, is another area of talent universities need to recruit.

“When it comes to job descriptions I see more emphasis on an institution’s teacher and learning strategy. That could be around greater digitalisation, higher amounts of practical work or more research.

“We’re seeing a Brexit impact and although we still have a strong global reputation, you won’t just be able to rely on your heritage to attract international staff going forward.”

There continues to be lots of good reasons to come and work in the UK

Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute

“In the months after the Brexit referendum, there were lots of stories from vice chancellors about EU staff going home. These have tailed off since then and indeed we now hear stories about new EU staff arriving. So perhaps the Brexit impact has been overdone slightly – although since it hasn’t happened yet, who knows?

“Our higher-education sector is perhaps one of the few things the UK is genuinely world class at, with an added advantage over other EU nations in that we speak English. There continues to be lots of good reasons to come and work in the UK.

“We will continue to be able to pay high salaries to attract talent because unlike other European countries our universities are autonomous – they are not civil servants – so if you want a world-class medical researcher you can pay for it.

“The big staffing issues are all around pay and pensions and workload, rather than Brexit. Our universities are relatively well funded with the fees regime, but some staff believe their pay rises haven’t been in line with senior managers. There is also disquiet over pensions and how much employees pay in, but it is still a far better pension than you will get in the commercial sector.

“Adding to their concerns are increased fears about staff’s mental health because students are more demanding and regulators are holding teachers more accountable.

“Despite all this, I don’t see retention or recruitment as a major challenge for universities. Academia is still an interesting and exciting job, and in the 12 years I have been working in the sector the supply of good staff has never been a top-three issue. If anything, you see academics struggling to find permanent roles.”

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