People still count: digging into the HESA staff dataset

24 February 2022      Sophie Crouchman, Strategic Projects and Research Manager

Two weeks ago, I shared my thoughts on the initial HESA staff data release, writes Sophie Crouchman, UHR Strategic Projects and Research Manager. Last week, HESA released their full open data set and boy is there a lot to unpick! Luckily for you, I spent a day trawling through the tables so you don’t have to. Although, I highly recommend that you do – and here I’ll explain why.

I’m going to start with a data table which you might be tempted to skip past, but which I found fascinating – information on Governors. HESA has been collecting information on Governors since 2018/19 and defines Governors as “members of the HE provider’s governing body, including staff and non-staff, over the year-long reporting period”. The governing body is the group of people ultimately accountable for a HEI’s strategy, activities, finances and future development. Luckily, HESA collect data about who these people are, revealing that the makeup of this group of individuals is starting to look more representative of the university community it serves. Between 2018/19 and 2020/21, the number of Governors identifying as Black, Asian, Mixed or Other (BAME) has risen slightly from 9% to 12% which is welcome, albeit slow, progress. The proportion of women on governing bodies has risen by less than 1% and now stands at 43%. Given that the HESA data tells us that the university staff population is 55% female with 15% of staff identifying as BAME, efforts to diversify the pool of Governors are still necessary. One positive figure is that 9% of Governors declare a disability, up from 5% 3 years ago. This is actually higher than the disability disclosure rate of 6% for the HE sector as shown in the HESA data.

On the subject of disability, HESA tells us that only 6% of HE staff declare a disability, falling to only 5% amongst academic staff. This figure is significantly less than the estimated 18% of working-age people in Britain who are defined as disabled by the Equality Act 2010 (Source: Employers' Forum on Disability). So, is it the case that only 1 in 20 of our university staff have a disability? Or are we under-reporting? I believe it’s the latter – though evidence to support this is, at best, anecdotal. Here at UHR we would love to hear from any HR practitioners who are addressing disability disclosure at their HEIs – please do get in touch with me if you are.

HESA have included a disclaimer in their latest release stating that “the impact of Covid-19 on staff data was minimal” and whilst their decisions for not undertaking more detailed analysis are understandable, I found some interesting aspects to the 2020/21 dataset which show that Covid-19 did indeed impact on staff at universities.

When looking at academic starters & leavers in the sector for the past 5 years, a clear picture emerges. Between 2016/17 and 2019/20 there were more starters than leavers each year (averaging ~5,500), meaning the number of academic staff increased year on year. In 2020/21, although the number of leavers stayed relatively static compared to previous years, the number of new academic staff employed dropped by over 5,000, meaning a net gain of only 1,000 academic staff across the entire sector. I referenced this in my first blog post and it will be interesting to see whether this trend is repeated for 2021/22 as the sector “bounces back”. At a time when student numbers have recently risen significantly (2020/21 HESA data showing an 8% increase in undergraduates and a 16% increase in postgraduates), student-staff ratios may show signs of stress if HEIs haven’t increased their recruitment of teaching staff in the most recent academic year. This demonstrates how valuable it is to look at trends within the HESA data and why people data should be considered as a critical part of universities’ strategic planning.

It’s also worth noting that the number of non-academic staff fell by almost 5,000 between 19/20 and 20/21, however I would caveat any analysis of non-academic staff data with the fact that it is, unfortunately, no longer mandatory for HEIs to return data on professional support staff in universities and so care must be taken with any conclusions made.

With ongoing industrial action, it seems that the use (or not) of Fixed Term Contracts is never out of the news. HESA’s first data release showed us that 32% of academic staff are employed on FTCs but this latest data lets us look in detail at who is using them – though crucially can’t tell us why. The proportion of staff on FTCs continues to fall year on year and there is a huge disparity in their use, with some HEIs having very few (or no) staff employed on FTCs and others using them for over 50% of all academic contracts. The HESA open data allows you to compare yourself with your peers on this, and myriad other, measures. On the subject of “Ts and Cs”, salary data reveals that 57% of full-time academic staff earn at least £46,718 but on closer inspection, a significant gender disparity becomes apparent, with only 15% of full-time women earning over £62,727 compared with 24% of full-time men. This is a result of women making up only 29% of all professorial appointments at HEIs, and women being more likely to work part time than men (40% of female academics are part time compared with 28% of male academics).

I want to end on a positive note. Figures on nationality reveal that UK higher education remains a destination of choice for academic colleagues from around the world. In the past 5 years, the number of staff from countries both within and outside of the EU has continued to increase and this group of staff now makes up 32% of all academic posts. This makes for a diverse and multi-cultural, if increasingly competitive, environment in which to build an academic career.

As the single most comprehensive source of information on staff working in UK higher education, the HESA dataset is a powerful tool for those working both inside and outside the sector to understand more about the HE workforce. In my previous blog post I challenged you is to identify ways in which you can better use the HESA staff data for your own benefit. With the release of a wider dataset there are now further opportunities for you to consider what the sector looks like and how you might benchmark yourself against others. UHR remains committed to working with you on your data needs, so please don’t hesitate to get in touch with me via email or Teams using

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