Big Rise In Academic Jobs – Really?

Most people trying to get a permanent academic job have to go through a period of fixed term research project or teaching work, after completing a PhD, before they have any chance of getting that permanent job. The uncertainty this creates makes it a very challenging stage of your academic career.

I’ve been trying to write about this issue and I was about to trot out the old line about how difficult it was to break into the academic job market, with fewer permanent academic jobs and the increased use of fixed term contracts but thought I’d better do some fact checking. Now I’m really confused.

This might only be of interest to those about to embark on an academic career, post-docs experiencing these issues first hand, other careers advisers or the odd stats junkie (like me) – feel free to skip otherwise.

Official statistics
Each university in the UK makes an annual return to the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) not only about its student population, but also about its employees. HESA publishes a range of data on those employed in academic roles, so I’ve looked back over the last 5 years (04/05 to 08/09, the latest info available on-line).

The following graph shows a very different picture to the one I was expecting (click on it to see a larger version).

Permanent academic jobs up by 27% – oh really?

You can see that permanent academic jobs have gone up by over 33,000 over the last five years, with fixed term contracts having fallen by over 4,000. That’s almost a 27% increase in permanent academic jobs – I was stunned.

Digging around, I’ve found out that there may be a bit of a “difference in interpretation” between institutions over what gets returned to HESA – but is this enough to over-ride the basic message?

Are graduate teaching assistants included?
For example, the data I’ve used from HESA excludes “atypical” academic staff. At Manchester, we have large numbers of these, including all our graduate teaching assistants & sessional lecturers (which we don’t include in this HESA return) but it’s not clear that this same definition is used everywhere. However, this would generally only over-inflate the fixed term contract numbers.

The fixed-term vs open-ended contract issue
A more important distinction may be the way that institutions define staff who have had multiple fixed term contracts. This gets to the heart of a very contentious issue. Since a change in the law a couple of years ago, anyone who has been employed to work on a fixed term project, or series of fixed term projects, for over 4 years with the same employer is deemed to have an open ended employment contract.

This doesn’t mean that they have a permanent job for life – if the work ends (as it generally would with a fixed term project) they may still face redundancy at the end of the project, but at least they would be entitled to support to find alternative roles, or redundancy pay if no other work were available.

Is it really a permanent academic job?
At Manchester, when we send HESA the number of permanent/open ended contract academics, we don’t include anyone on a fixed term research project or teaching role, even if they have clocked up enough service to have an open ended employment contract. I think this is reasonable, otherwise it would look like we’ve got loads of academics in comfortable permanent jobs, whereas many of them would actually be in jobs which might well end in a year or two if no other suitable project work comes up. However, I don’t know if this rationale is used across all institutions.

So, are there lots of new permanent academic jobs out there? I know if you talk to PhDs, research and teaching staff that it doesn’t feel like it, and with impending cuts, it’s only likely to get tougher.

Graphs galore
I’ve looked at the stats by fixed term vs open ended contracts, and by full-time vs part-time in “teaching & research”, “research only” and “teaching only” and most of them show a growth in numbers (other than fixed term contracts) over the last 5 years. Click the link below to see a Word document with lots of pretty graphs.

Staff in academic roles – HESA returns over the last 5 years.

Have we really been living through a golden age of academic recruitment and not noticed? If anyone can shed any light on this, let me know!


I’ve been digging a bit further, and spotted that the increases in academic staff aren’t evenly spread across the grades. There was an increase in the number of Professors and Senior Lecturers/Researchers, and a reduction in the number of Lecturers, from 04/05 up to 07/08.  Unfortunately HESA changed their stats reporting by grade that year, so I can’t give equivalent figures for 08/09.

(The notes on the HESA website point out that some institutions report senior grades differently, and include Profs in the Senior Lecturer category, so the Professor figure is likely to be an underestimate).

I wonder if universities might have been filling up with senior staff (who, coincidentally, would look good in the RAE. Now, when was the RAE? Oh yes, 2008 …) at the cost of new lecturer posts? Hmmm, that might account for why early career researchers report struggling to find academic jobs at a time when permanent academic posts have increased.

HESA has changed its stats for 08/09, only reporting “Professors” and “non-Professors” now, so I can’t see what happened to the Lecturer grades after 07/08.  Interestingly though, the figure for “Professors” fell that year, from 18,290 in 07/08 to 17,535 in 08/09.

Lots of retirements as soon as the RAE was over – or am I being cynical?



4 comments on “Big Rise In Academic Jobs – Really?

  1. Very interesting indeed. I guess what the average PhD/post-doc looking for academic jobs would be interested in is how the number of vacancies compares with the numbers completing PhDs every year. Has the latter risen in proportion with (or in excess of) the number of vacancies? The bottom line for a lot of people is how many (suitably qualified) candidates will be competing with them for a post. My sense is competition has increased in the areas that I advise on, but I think the picture could be dramatically different depending on the subject discipline, as the popularity of different subjects at undergraduate level waxes and wanes. So 2 more graphs would be nice:
    – Trends in academic vacancies by subject discipline
    – Trends in vacancies compared with numbers of PhD completers

    • It’s really difficult to take this too much further (other than the update I’ve added: Have universities been “Prof-stuffing” for RAE?!). It’s not just new PhDs completing – it’s all the research and teaching staff still hoping to land an academic job after taking temporary work in universities, post-PhD. I’ve got no idea of the “backlog” of research/teaching staff also sitting in the wings, waiting for the right academic vacancy.

      However, I’ve put feelers out with RCUK and talked to Charlie Ball at HECSU, and if I can find out more, especially by discipline, I’ll post again.

  2. There’s something very interesting going on here.

    Having talked to Elizabeth and had a good old root around in the destination stats for new PhDs, it appears that if there has been an increase in academic staffing levels, it may *not* have come from new PhDs getting jobs in academia (if anything, they’ve found it harder to get posts), and that Elizabeth’s suspicion that it might be more experienced people getting roles may be closer to the truth. This, of course, has implications for the career prospects of new PhDs, and also fits in with the qualitative stories we have all been hearing

    I am not sure if we have access to the right statistical data to really get to the bottom of this, but we can certainly have a go!

    • It looks like HESA do collect lots of stats which would make the whole picture clearer, including movement of academic staff (between institutions, and in and out of UK academia) plus nationality – might give some indication if how active UK universities were in the international academic transfer market prior to the RAE. However, like graduate destination stats, I assume that though universities have to supply this info to HESA, they’ll charge us to access the data they collate.

      I have done one more graph which includes the populations of two more “grades” for staff in academic roles – “Researchers” (any research grades which aren’t included in Lecturer or above) and “Other grades” (not sure what’s in here – teaching staff employed below the usual Lecturer grade?) These are the HESA definitions.

      I’ve uploaded it here, in case you’re interested (if you want the full spreadsheet, just drop me an e-mail).

      The definitions are unclear, but it does appear to show the researcher base building while the number of lecturers fall. No wonder it’s felt tough at the bottom.

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