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The biggest higher ed questions that nobody is asking are about the university as a workplace. We talk about the university as a place of learning, credentialing and knowledge creation. We worry endlessly (and legitimately) about student debt and graduation rates. Not a day goes by when articles fail to appear on the tenuous financial position and looming demographic cliff that colleges are facing.

We don’t talk much about the university as a place of employment. When we do, the conversation primarily (and again justifiably) revolves around the erosion of the tenure track and the metastasis of faculty contingency.

I want to get my head around the university as an employer and higher education as an industry. Some questions I have include:

  1. How many people work in higher education? Federal figures from the National Center for Education Statistics indicate 3.8 million employees in postsecondary institutions. The Chronicle reports closer to 4.7 million. Whichever number is correct, both are big.
  2. What proportion of higher education employees work hybrid and fully remote? Are specific university jobs more or less likely to fall into these categories? I’ve not seen any data on these questions. Have you?
  3. What does an aging higher education workforce mean for our colleges and universities? The College and University Professional Association for Human Resources put out an excellent report titled “The Challenges of an Aging Higher Ed Workforce.” Is anyone besides university HR departments worried about the average age of our faculty and staff?
  1. How will jobs in higher education change? Today, about 1.5 million of the 3.8 million higher education employees are faculty. (Using the NCES numbers.) What will the higher education workforce look like in 2030 or 2050? What faculty and staff jobs are growing, and which might disappear?
  2. How do university employee demographics differ between faculty and staff? And compared to other industries, how diverse (and in what ways) is higher education? ACE did great work on staff diversity, but that research is now a few years old. The NCES has some good demographic data on faculty.
  3. What is going on with unions and higher education? James Thelen wrote a good piece on this subject for IHE called “A New Era of Union Activism in Higher Ed.” What I don’t know are overall higher education union numbers, trends and comparisons across industries. Can anyone help?
  1. Are higher education jobs more stable, reliable and secure than those in other industries? The conventional wisdom is that while going into higher education will never make you wealthy (true), you will have a more secure and stable career. Is that true? We know that contingent faculty enjoy little to no job security. What about staff? I can’t find good numbers comparing university employees to people doing similar work in other industries. Any assistance would be appreciated.

Is there an academic discipline that studies higher education from an employment lens? Who are the leading scholars investigating the university as a workplace? How can I spend time with postsecondary human resource professionals?

What are your questions about higher education as a workplace?

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