The Challenges Facing Academic Staff in UK Universities

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by Sarah Marten

Everyone who has featured as a case study in our Career Development pages agrees on one thing – they really enjoy their jobs, and have no plans to move on from the university sector in the foreseeable future! Most echo the feelings of Professor Martin Shepperd from Brunel University who said, “I love my job and can’t think of anything else I’d rather do.” However, academics at all levels also face a number of challenges, often along similar themes. In this article, we will discuss some of these challenges with the following staff:

Martin Shepperd, Professor in Software Technologies and Modelling at Brunel University

Gary Brickley, Senior Lecturer in Sports and Exercise Science at the University of Brighton

Sophie Turban, Researcher in Molecular Metabolism at the University of Edinburgh.

1) Obtaining funding for research

Research is usually a high priority for academics, from those working as post-doctoral researchers up to professorial level. Obtaining funding, of the right kind, is key:

Martin: “Obtaining funding is always a challenge and the odds of success in my field have diminished quite sharply in recent years. A less than 20% success rate for submissions to the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council’s ICT panel is commonplace.”

Gary: “This is a continuing battle and one where you unfortunately have to face the rejections as well as the enjoyment of winning grants. However, when you are successful in winning a grant it is incredibly rewarding.”

Sophie: “This last year has proved particularly difficult in terms of obtaining funding for research – much of our money comes from charities and they have really been affected by the recession. Your preliminary research findings need to be outstanding in order to be successful in this very competitive market. All these factors add to your stress and can affect your morale.”

 2) Increasing student numbers including at postgraduate level

Successive governments have sought to increase access to higher education, resulting in a dramatic increase in student numbers. In 1995/6 there were around 972,000 full-time undergraduate students, whilst by 2007/8 this number had grown to over 1.8 million. Source*

Martin: “I think the problem is not so much the impact upon the quality of education per se, but it certainly becomes more impersonal and this is something I miss. When I first started teaching around 25 years ago there were about 50 undergraduate students in a year group and I knew them all by name. With typical numbers of around 200 nowadays the sense of community is diminished, and I think that perhaps students feel more isolated. We also have to deliver our teaching in a different way.”

Gary: “Yes, the undergraduate world does seem to be dependent on big numbers and you have to be careful not to lose the personal approach with students. There is a real need to change teaching and learning strategies to suit the number of students and this is challenging.”

Sophie: “Part of my work as a researcher involves demonstrating laboratory techniques to students, and this can be difficult with very large groups. You have to make sure that you don’t overlook those students who need extra help, as this could affect the qualifications they achieve in the future.”

3) The student as consumer

With the advent of tuition fees, there may be student expectations about value for money, possibly putting more pressure on academic staff.

Martin: “Fortunately, in my experience, this attitude is rare. I say fortunately because the analogy with customers is completely inappropriate. Students (regrettably) have to pay for their education; however, they are not paying for a qualification. This is earned.”

Gary: “This pressure is not so noticeable right now, but that may change in the future. We still get good numbers on all of our courses.”

Sophie: “I generally find that students’ expectations are quite high, irrespective of whether they are paying fees or not.”

4) Balancing research with teaching

Finding time to fit in all the preparation, teaching and marking alongside an active research programme can sometimes represent a challenge.

Martin: “Personally, I enjoy having an element of both. And research can inform teaching. Of course, on occasions there are tensions and in some universities there is a perception that research success is more likely to lead to promotion than teaching success.”

Gary: “Creating a good balance between consultancy, research and teaching is hard. It is best to try to get some overlap between the three so that they complement each other."

Sophie: “I really enjoy the teaching and interaction with students. Helping to impart knowledge to the students is rewarding, and we all learn from each other.”

5) Issues facing today’s students

Worries about mounting debts, working at a part-time job, and anxieties about the future plague an increasing number of students.

Martin: “This can be a problem. One side effect is that students want a timetable with free days, not so that they can focus in an interrupted way on their studies, but so they can earn some money. That can challenge the notion of a full-time degree.”

Gary: “Students do worry about this, particularly at postgraduate level, where there is normally existing debt before the course has started. There is no guarantee of the perfect job at the end of the course, but many students are prepared to invest in themselves.”

Sophie: “Experiments in our laboratory can take as long as three days, and students’ part-time work commitments can upset the continuity. It is not ideal if I have to finish the experiments for them!”

6) Moving to HE after a career in industry

Is there a period of culture shock and adjustment on leaving the commercial world?

Martin: “For me, apart from the drop in salary, this was painless. There is so much more freedom and less pressure, particularly commercial pressure.”

7) The shift to e-Learning

New technologies, the increasing digital literacy of students, and a move towards blended learning and online tutoring present academic staff with new challenges. How does this affect their work?

Martin: “The most important thing is to try to create the best possible environment within which the student can learn. Fashions come and go. Those ideas and technologies of value will endure. Those things that are useful will be picked up and adopted. In any case it can be fun to try out new ideas.”

Gary: “The whole e-learning experience gives students lots more outlets for finding information, but it is processing this information and filtering out the relevant parts that is most important. It does make access to journals, for example, so much easier than years ago when everyone had to photocopy journal articles.”

Sophie: “At present this does not affect me, although this could change in the future.”

8) Taking work home

Most academic staff take work home – does this lead to a blurring of boundaries between work and home?

Martin: “This can be quite a problem and is a consequence of broadband and other technological advances. Being able to work at home (away from the hubbub) can be both pleasant and productive, but checking emails on a Sunday morning intrudes a lot on home life.”

Gary: “Yes, this is a real problem, and it’s difficult to avoid with deadlines and a real interest in your own work. It can, however, allow you to be more flexible in your job and your whereabouts.”

Sophie: “Working from home is a reality for research assistants, simply because the days are not long enough. This can affect your family life, as you will sometimes need to work during the evenings and at weekends.”

9) The increasing need to have a teaching qualification

Many universities now insist that teaching staff hold a recognised qualification such as the Postgraduate Certificate in University Teaching and Learning.

Gary: “Experience is much better than bits of paper. There is certainly a place for the teaching qualifications and you can learn a lot from people teaching in other disciplines from these courses.”

10) Issues facing PhD students and post-doctorial researchers

Issues such as future career prospects and uncertainty, long hours and low pay are often of concern to those at the start of their academic career.

Martin: “Lack of continuity of employment can be a real problem for early career researchers. Effectively they go from one fixed term contact to another (each tied to a particular research grant) and on occasions these can be for quite short periods of time.”

Gary: “Yes, this can be a problem, but this should be a strong reason to encourage the PhD students to have more to their background than just their PhD. I encourage teaching responsibilities and consultancy work with all my PhD students.”

Sophie: “Most contracts for research assistants last between two and three years, and beyond that nothing is certain. For this reason some people are attracted to jobs in industry, although many people would prefer to stay in academia as they enjoy the freedom and flexibility.”

11) The lure of jobs in overseas universities

There are many reports about the steady stream of academics willing to relocate overseas, tempted by reports of higher salaries and better career prospects.

Martin: “Actually I know quite a few European colleagues who are looking enviously at UK universities. Although, of course, it may be a case of the grass is always greener…!”

Gary: “Yes, this is very tempting and can seem appealing.”

Sophie: “For me, collaboration with overseas universities is important, aside from actually working abroad, which also presents excellent opportunities. It is really exciting and positive to share experience and knowledge with laboratories in other countries.”


* Source – Higher Education Statistics Agency




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