People count: using HESA staff data to your advantage

10 February 2022      Sophie Crouchman, Strategic Projects and Research Manager

Amongst a select group of individuals, February marks an exciting time in the HE data calendar – yes, you guessed it – HESA data releases! With great anticipation, I delved into the first tranche of the Higher Education 2020/21 staff statistics and despite the fact that this isn’t nearly the whole dataset, there are still some interesting nuggets to digest, writes Sophie Crouchman, UHR Strategic Projects and Research Manager.

Anyone working in HR teams in higher education will be aware of the flurry of activity from late summer to November, as colleagues are preparing the HESA staff return. But even if you don’t know your ACEMPFUN from your ACTCHQUAL, you’ve never had to calculate a CCPROP or check whether someone’s SIGRES is 1 or 2, familiarising yourself with the HESA staff return and what it means is a must for all HR professionals.

The HESA staff return is a statutory data collection exercise for all UK HEIs. It contains information about all staff holding employment contracts at universities within a census period of 1 August – 31 July. HESA describe the content of the return as follows:

The Staff record collects individualised data on the personal characteristics of Staff, the details of their contracts, and the activities undertaken as a result of those contracts.

The statutory nature of the return means that the dataset published by HESA in February each year shows the state of play for HE staff across the entire sector. Changes in recent years means that it is no longer mandatory to submit non-academic staff data for HEIs in England and Northern Ireland, meaning that its use for benchmarking has been somewhat diminished, however the majority of UK HEIs are still returning non-academic staff data and the dataset remains a rich resource for academic staff data trends.

This year’s first release is no exception. The headline story is that the number of academic staff in the sector has seen a very small increase of less than 1% between 2019/20 and 2020/21. This might have been expected due to the cost-saving measures many HEIs implemented as a response to the pandemic, however it is worth noting that the HESA student dataset shows significant increases in student numbers of 8% for undergraduates and 16% for taught postgraduates in the same period. The conclusion from this appears to be that across the sector, HEIs are indeed “doing more with less” – whether this is sustainable remains to be seen, with pressures on workloads already being felt and articulated.

Unfortunately the data on diversity within the academic community are still pretty dismal. The number of academics identifying as Black, Asian, Mixed or Other has risen by only 1% in a year, with the total number of Black Professors now standing at 160 from last year’s total of 155 (these figures are rounded by HESA). Interestingly, although the overall ratio of female to male academic staff has stayed the same at 47%:53%, there are slightly more women employed in academic positions in 20/21– a rise of ~1000 when compared to 19/20 data.

Moving on to look at the conditions of employment, it’s here that the value of looking deeper into the HESA data becomes apparent. The 2020/21 data shows that 32% of academic staff are employed on fixed term contracts, a decrease from 35% in 2014/15. The pace of change is slow. However, it is worth understanding that HESA include in this data all staff who hold contracts for teaching and/or research activities – including research associates; temporary teaching staff and guest lecturers who do not fall under the definition of “atypical” staff. Unsurprisingly, UCU have picked up on these statistics in recent communications, however their focus has been on the use of fixed term contracts and equality rather than overall numbers of academic staff. Universities may hope that the rapid and unexpected rise in student numbers of the last 2 years was a one off, but it’s clear from the data that academic staff numbers are not rising at the same rate.

To finish, I want to return to a point I made early on in this post. All HR functions spend a significant amount of time and resource working on completing the HESA return. My challenge to you is to identify ways in which you can better use this data for your own benefit……

· Can you use your carefully curated HESA dataset as the basis of your charter mark analyses, rather than spending valuable time pulling data from your HR systems at other fixed points in the year?

· Can you benchmark yourself to show, for example, that your institution has only half the number of staff on FTCs as the sector average?

· Can you use the diversity data held within these figures to set aspirational targets for recruitment of Black academic staff?

HESA will be releasing even more staff data later this month which will allow even more insight into the HE workforce, I’ll be back with more comments when that happens. Until then, I’ll be working on a UHR project to support our members in developing and enhancing broad data competency amongst their teams. If you would like to know more about the project, to get involved or even to chat about HESA data (!) then please get in touch with me via email or Teams using

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