Academics have ‘more generous’ benefits than other professionals – report

University academics have “more generous” working conditions in a number of areas compared to professionals in other sectors, a report suggests.

Academics have a number of job-related benefits – particularly around their pensions, sick pay, annual leave and access to sabbaticals, according to the paper by the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi) think tank.

It comes as a marking and assessment boycott is being carried out by University and College Union (UCU) members at 145 universities across the UK in an ongoing dispute over staff’s pay and conditions.

University staff staged a series of strikes in February and March in two separate disputes – one on pensions and one on pay and working conditions.

Nick Hillman, director of Hepi, said academics “compare well to those in other professions” in the areas most associated with industrial action.

The paper suggests that the benefits of pension schemes for academics “greatly outweigh UK averages”, with an employer contribution rate of 21.6% for the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) compared to the average employer pension contribution of 5%.

It adds that, on average, academics are entitled to sick pay that is 13 times “more generous” than the statutory minimum.

The think tank commissioned SUMS Consulting to undertake the comparative study of the benefits being offered to academics by institutions and the analysis took place between October to December 2022.

The study also highlights areas where the higher education sector falls behind other industries – such as the increased use of fixed-term and casual contracts.

Only two-thirds (67%) of academics are in permanent employment, compared to 94% of people in the labour market as a whole, the report says.

Mr Hillman said: “We have been living through multiple years of industrial action in the higher education sector without a secure evidence base on whether academics have relatively good or comparatively poor terms and conditions.

“The results show a nuanced picture. On the areas that have been most associated with the recent industrial action – pay and pensions – academics compare well to those in other professions.

“Generous occupational pension schemes of the sort that disappeared years ago for most staff in the private and charitable sectors remain the norm in academia.”

But he added that academics “score poorly” on wellbeing and mental health, and for newer academics it can be “much harder” to find secure and permanent contracts than it is for employees in other sectors.

Mr Hillman said: “Those on both sides of the recent – and current – industrial disputes in higher education would do well to reflect on what more can now be done to tackle precarity in higher education.

“On the basis of this research, that seems a more urgent priority, for example, than forever protecting gold-plated pensions against all change.”

The paper benchmarks different types of pay and benefits of academics based on the various drivers of “Good Work” defined by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD).

Jo Grady, general secretary of the UCU, said: “University staff pay has fallen 25% behind inflation, tens of thousands eke out an existence on insecure contracts and half are showing probable signs of depression due to overwork. It is rich in the extreme to suggest they are living it up compared with other workers.

“Every employment benefit university staff are able to enjoy has been won, not given, and trade unions will not indulge a race to the bottom which pits one set of workers against another.

“No matter the sector, all workers deserve decent sick pay, conditions and a pension that allows them to retire without facing poverty.

“The employment conditions in higher education in the UK have been consistently worsening and vice-chancellors are the ones who have allowed it to happen.”