Access to global talent crucial to keeping academic recruitment and retention challenges at bay

UCEA’s 2019 Higher Education Workforce Report* was released today and reveals that the more significant recruitment and retention challenges at UK HE institutions continue to be broadly confined to the particular academic disciplines of medicine, STEM, economics and business and, for professional services staff, to functions such as IT and finance. The recruitment and retention challenges for both academic and professional services staff in the 2019 report are very similar to those reported in 2017. Overall, the indicators are positive with typical employee turnover remaining below that for similar organisations in the wider economy. The median resignation rate for professional services staff was 7.6% in 2017-18 and only 5% for academic staff. This compares to 12.8% for similar organisations in the wider economy.

However, UCEA’s analysis also highlights the need for the sector to have access to international talent post-Brexit with concerns expressed by the majority of HE institutions that restrictions would exacerbate existing skills shortages. The data show that UK HE institutions are already highly reliant on both EU and wider international staff in many subject areas and we now see that there are academic disciplines – economics, chemical engineering and modern languages – where the majority of employees are non-UK nationals. 

The Report’s analysis of new data and institutional practice in the use of apprentices shows that there is more to be done in this area with HE institutions reporting that they recouped only a small fraction of the apprenticeship levy they paid in its first year of operation. More positively, use of the new sector-specific apprenticeship standards is gaining momentum. There are 2,500 apprentices already in the sector and the report finds that 16% of HE institutions are already using the new Academic apprenticeship standard with a further 19% likely to use it in the next 12 months. Furthermore, 40% of HE institutions plan to or are likely to use the HE technician apprenticeship which is currently in development.

UCEA Chief Executive, Helen Fairfoul said:
“It is pleasing to see ongoing low levels of turnover among both academic and professional services staff and institutions reporting that issues with pay levels are confined to specific roles, with their total reward packages remaining competitive in local and national markets. Clear, consistent concerns come across, however, about the need for an immigration system that encourages and facilitates the movement of global talent and we can see we have certain academic disciplines where the majority of university employees are now non-UK nationals. 

“The examination of workforce demographics shows there remain significant challenges for BAME and gender representation, particularly in senior roles. In looking at contracts in the sector, however, we found the data showing a trend towards more open-ended and full-time academic employment. We also analysed newly available data on hourly-paid employment for the first time, finding the largest numbers of such contracts to be in performing arts and continuing education. 

“While it was disappointing to see such a low level of recovery by HE employers of their apprenticeship levy in the first year of its operation, the sector’s work collectively to develop new apprenticeship standards is beginning to pay off. It is encouraging to see many of our member institutions using and looking to use these standards, including in order to invest in their existing staff and develop their skills for the future.”

*UCEA’s Higher Education Workforce Report 2019 can be found on the UCEA website at
UCEA’s Workforce Survey is a biennial analysis of data from UK HEIs which looks at recruitment and retention in the sector and a range of other workforce topics including contract trends, workforce demographics, apprenticeships and alternative staffing arrangements. The survey report draws on UK-wide data, using both analysis of the 2017-18 HESA Staff Collection (comprising comprehensive data from 162 HE institutions) and responses from UCEA’s own survey completed by 87 HEIs. The report is enriched with information gathered from 11 interviews with senior HR professionals.

The preceding full Higher Education Workforce Survey Report from 2017 can be found at:

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