From education to employment

UCEA Report Reveals What It’s Like to Work in HE

Recent surveys reveal key drivers of employee engagement in UK Higher Education, highlighting benefits like purpose-driven work and challenges such as leadership issues and workload, emphasising the importance of employee feedback.

A career in Further education is busy and varied. It can be extremely rewarding, and thousands of people throughout the country are eagerly working toward tenured positions, keen to make a difference and contribute to their chosen field. However, no profession is perfect, and the reality is, that staff in many universities are feeling anxious about their future. In fact, according to a UCU survey of over 7,000 UK participants in HE, nearly two-thirds said they were likely, or very likely, to leave the university sector in the next five years. 

Higher Education in the UK is of a remarkable standard, enjoying an international reputation for excellence. However, if this reputation is to persist, we must remain up-to-date with the state of the workplace, as we would in the private sector. How happy are the employees? What is motivating them to excel and where can Higher Education Institutions improve to retain and engage their staff? 

A recent report commissioned by UCEA via People Insight set out to investigate what employees value most about working in HE while highlighting areas for improvement. Insights were extracted from a dataset of over 300,000 data points specific to Higher Education to lend a nuanced perspective when benchmarked against the millions of data points spanning the private and not-for-profit sectors. 

Before we delve into where HE is excelling and where it’s falling behind, let’s first look at employee engagement levels within HE. 

Employee Engagement Levels in HE 

Put very simply, employee engagement is the emotional commitment an employee has to their work, their place of work and their organisation’s goals. Many elements affect an employee’s engagement level, and it’s likely to vary over time, for several reasons. Universities with high engagement scores are creating the right conditions to allow their employees to thrive. 

This recent report on Higher Education Institutions shows that generally, engagement levels are slightly lower in HE (74%) than in the private (78%) and public sectors (76%). To understand why this is, and to turn things around, we need to first understand the key drivers of engagement in the world of HE. The research revealed what employees love about working in the sector, along with where they feel improvements must be made. 

The Notable Benefits of Working in HE — According to the Data 

The report found that HEIs excel in the following areas: 

Purpose-Driven Work 

When it comes to working in HE, the one driver that resonates with the majority of people is that of purpose-driven work. Typically, employees in HEIs are more passionate and more driven than those in other sectors. Eight out of ten find their work both challenging and interesting, and 76% claim to derive a sense of achievement from their work — a full 4% more than those in professional services. 

Those working in HE value the intellectually stimulating environment, and the opportunity to think critically and carry out impactful research while engaging in complex ideas. People in HE are generally driven by a desire to have a positive impact through their work, and they feel they can make a real difference within their chosen profession. 

Something else that goes hand-in-hand with purpose-driven work is employee autonomy to pursue their work in a way that suits them. 79% of people in HE claim they have the freedom and flexibility to get on with their jobs, to develop ideas and to innovate while working independently. 

Colleagues and Teamwork 

One real benefit of working in HE appears to be the camaraderie, trust and collaboration between employees. More than 90% of people in HE believe they have good relationships with their colleagues, and more than three-quarters say that people help and support each other at their HEI. 

As well as being happy and trusting of those around them, people in HE generally find that they are free, and confident, to be themselves at work. 70% of employees within HE say they can be themselves in their team, which contrasts with 60% of those in professional services. This positivity extends to immediate line managers, who are largely perceived to be respectful, considerate and approachable — 84% of HE employees agree that their line manager communicates effectively. All of this contributes to a fulfilling, rewarding and motivating workplace. 

The Learning and Working Environment 

Employees in HE are very much motivated by the opportunity to learn and develop at work. 55% find they have the opportunity to grow at work while believing that their job makes good use of their unique skills and abilities. They also appreciate the networking and collaboration opportunities provided, giving them access to experts in their field and conferences to build networks of collaborators far beyond their HEI. 

People in HE generally have access to a range of training and learning resources, demonstrating a real commitment to ongoing professional development, which is a huge driver for employee engagement across sectors. 

Areas of Improvement For HEIs 

The recent report also found areas in which HEIs should be focusing to boost and improve the employee experience: 

Connection to Senior Leadership 

The report highlights an important issue concerning senior leadership. While communication with direct line managers appears to be positive, trust and confidence in senior leadership is significantly lower in HE than it is elsewhere. Only 48% of employees in HEIs say they have confidence in their senior management team, compared to 63% in the private sector and 51% in the public sector. 

The cause of this mistrust appears to be leadership style, with many describing it as ‘command and control’, with top-down decision-making. While leaders in the private sector have been encouraged to focus on empathy and emotional intelligence, it seems that leaders in HE favour a more authoritarian approach which is ultimately hindering productivity and communication. Just under half of HE employees believe that senior leaders make an effort to listen to employees, compared to 61% in the private sector. Furthermore, only 46% of HE employees say that senior leaders are open and approachable when compared to 64% across other sectors. 


One significant area for improvement within HE is that of workload. People in HE are far less likely to feel their workload is reasonable. Only 55% of employees in HE say that their workload is reasonable when compared to 64% across all other sectors. They generally find it hard to cope with the demands of the job without working excessive hours. Only 59% say they can strike the right balance between work and home when compared to 66% across public sector employees and 70% in the not-for-profit sector. This is in line with a statistic from UCU, which shows one in five academics work an extra sixteen hours per week

There appears to be a consensus that excessive administrative tasks add to their already heavy workload, causing a distraction from core responsibilities. HE employees add that inefficient systems can cause more work and undue stress. 

Feeling Valued 

We know that feeling valued and appreciated is a huge driver of employee engagement. Unfortunately, employees within HE often report feeling undervalued. This results partially from the fact that within the sector, promotion criteria can be far too rigid. There is also a belief that external candidates are favoured, resulting in murky and confusing avenues for advancement. This is compounded by the issue of pay. We know that levels of pay within UK higher education are down 25.5% since 2009. Employees are understandably calling for an increase in pay to reflect workload, effort, qualifications and market rates.  

There are a lot of draws and rewards to working in HE, although it is certainly not without its drawbacks. To keep our further education institutions thriving and excelling, it’s important we survey HE employees, and get to grips with how they feel and what they are experiencing so we can create a workplace environment conducive to innovation, communication and critical thinking. By carrying out research such as this, we can detect and work on flaws in the system, ultimately creating a better employee experience for everyone, and ensuring the best work gets done. 

By Kate Pritchard, Head of Consulting at People Insight

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