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What do we know about technicians?


When asked to imagine who works at a higher education provider, many people may think first of academic staff delivering lectures. The higher education workforce, however, comprises staff with a wide variety of roles, encompassing not only academic staff, but also staff working in administration, facilities, libraries, laboratories, and more. Many types of non-academic staff, moreover, can be essential to providers’ educational activities.  

Among non-academic staff, the technical workforce in particular has been the subject of growing interest in recent years. In 2017, a group of universities and research institutions, with support from the Science Council and the Gatsby Foundation, launched the Technician Commitment, an initiative aimed at promoting the visibility, recognition, career development, and long-term sustainability of technical roles in the higher education and research sectors.[1] In the same year, the National Technician Development Centre (NTDC) was established in order to develop tools and resources to support career development pathways for technical staff.[2] In 2020, the TALENT Commission was launched as part of Midlands Innovation’s TALENT project in order to address gaps in the sector’s understanding of technical roles; the Commission published a report of its findings and key recommendations in February 2022.[3]

In autumn 2022, HEPI and Midlands Innovation published a ten-part series of blogs on technical talent.[4] That blog series covered a range of issues relevant to technical staff in higher education, ranging from their contributions to research and innovation to how technical roles are likely to evolve in the coming years. Contributions to the series also reflected widespread interest in the quality of employment experienced by technical staff, including skills utilisation, career development, pay, and terms of employment. 

Despite this interest, data on technicians remains patchy, as does our understanding of how the demographic characteristics and employment conditions of the technical workforce compare to those of other parts of the higher education workforce. In order to shed additional light on the technical workforce, researchers from HESA and the NTDC collaborated to compare data on technical staff from the NTDC’s Technician Survey with equivalent data on academic staff from the HESA Staff record

Data on technicians 

Although they may support research and teaching activities, technicians are classified as non-academic staff for the purposes of the HESA Staff record. In 2019 the return of non-academic staff data became optional for providers in England and Northern Ireland. While 54% of English providers and 50% of Northern Irish providers continue to return non-academic staff data on an optional basis, the Staff record cannot give us a complete view of the technical workforce. 

Other data on technicians, however, is available. In order to increase understanding of technical roles and to support workforce planning, the NTDC administer the Technician Survey to participating institutions. The survey collects data not only on the demographic characteristics of technical staff, but also on their employment, skills, career plans, and development needs. 

Comparing technicians with academic staff 

Academic staff are arguably the most visible part of the higher education workforce. We therefore considered that a comparison of technical and academic staff could help to put the technical workforce in context. Looking at data on technical staff from the NTDC Technician Survey and data on academic staff from the HESA Staff record, we sought to compare some of the key characteristics of the two groups. 

The reach of the Technician Survey, which is currently used by 18 higher education providers, is not so broad as that of the HESA Staff record, which currently collects staff data from 216 providers. In order to facilitate comparisons between the two groups, we restricted our sample of academic staff to the 2021/22 data from the 18 providers also participating in the Technician Survey. Given the relatively small numbers of staff in each category at each provider, rather than comparing individual providers, we chose to pool our sample and look at academic and technical staff from all 18 providers. This yielded a total of 3100 technicians and 49,425 academic staff members. 

Although the Technician Survey and the Staff record cover some of the same concepts, questions are worded differently in the two records. In addition, the list of possible entries for some fields varies from one record to another. Before analysing our sample, we therefore needed to map the fields in our two data sources, sometimes grouping fields where one record contained a more granular breakdown. The Staff record, for example, contains a list of specific disabilities, whereas the Technician Survey only records whether or not technicians consider themselves to have a disability; we therefore grouped all of the Staff record disability categories together for the purpose of analysis. Although we could not always map precisely between the two records, our discussion here focuses on areas where we were able to map from one record to another confidently enough to enable comparisons. 

We compared the demographic breakdowns of the two groups by gender, age, highest qualification held, disability, and ethnicity. We also looked at mode (full-time or part-time) and contract type (open-ended or fixed-term). 

The characteristics of the technical workforce 

When we looked at the demographic characteristics of the two datasets, we found some areas in which the two groups were very similar and other areas in which they differed. Rates of disability, for instance, were quite similar, with 5% of academic staff and 7% of technical staff identifying themselves as having a disability. We found slightly larger differences when we looked at gender and age; we saw a somewhat higher percentage of male technicians (57%) than male academic staff (53%) as well as higher percentages of technical staff in the youngest and oldest age bands. We also saw differences by ethnicity, with 69% of academic staff identifying as ‘white’ or ‘other white background’, compared to 84% of technicians; for both datasets, the number of staff in individual non-white ethnicity categories was small enough to make meaningful comparison difficult. 

Perhaps the most interesting comparisons emerged when we looked at the qualifications held by technical and academic staff members (Figure 1). Academic staff were, on the whole, more highly qualified than technical staff, with a much higher percentage of academic than technical staff holding doctoral qualifications. Further examination of the qualifications held by technical staff, however, showed a highly qualified population, which looks likely to grow increasingly highly qualified over time. 

Figure 1. Highest qualifications held by academic and technical staff 

Figure described in text

While only 18% of technical staff hold a doctorate, compared to 59% of academic staff, 77% percent of technical staff are educated to first degree level or above. In this regard technicians, while still less highly qualified, are much closer to academic staff, 87% of whom are educated to first degree level or above. 

If we consider the highest qualifications of staff in different age bands, a new dimension emerges (Figures 2 and 3). Amongst academic staff over the age of 30, there is relatively little variation in qualifications by age, although older academics are slightly less likely to hold doctorates than those in younger groups (Figure 2). Amongst technicians over 30, however, younger technicians are more likely to hold postgraduate qualifications than technicians in older age bands (Figure 3). 56% of technicians aged 31-40, for example, hold a doctorate or other postgraduate qualification, compared to 31% of those aged 61 and above. As older technicians retire, it seems likely that the proportion of the technical workforce holding higher qualifications will increase. While the proportion of technicians with doctoral degrees may never match the proportion in the academic workforce, we may within the next twenty years see a technical workforce most of whom hold postgraduate qualifications of some sort. 

Figure 2. Highest qualifications held by academic staff by age group 

Figure described in text

Figure 3. Highest qualifications held by technical staff by age group 

Figure described in text

Technical and academic terms of employment 

Initiatives focused on technicians, including the TALENT Commission, the Technician Commitment, and the NTDC itself, often focus on improving employment quality and opportunities for career development. Both of our datasets include two different fields relating to terms of employment; we hold data for both technicians and academic staff on contract type, i.e. whether they are employed on fixed-term or open ended contracts, and on mode of employment, i.e. whether they are employed on a part-time or full-time basis. Although we lack data on opportunities for promotion, our comparison of respondents to the Technician Survey and academic staff showed that technical roles may outperform academic ones in terms of job security and availability of full-time work. 

When we looked at contract type, the technical and academic groups were broadly similar, with 73% of academic staff and 71% of technical staff employed on open-ended contracts (Figure 4). When we looked at mode of employment, however, we saw some stark differences (Figure 5). 69% of academic staff in our dataset were employed full-time, compared to 86% percent of technical staff. If we consider the availability of full-time work as a measure of one aspect of employment quality, the technicians in our dataset compare favourably to their academic counterparts in this regard. 

Figure 4. Contracts of academic and technical staff 

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Figure 5. Mode of employment for academic and technical staff 

Figure described in text

For both academic and technical staff, contracts and mode of employment varied substantially by gender (Figures 6 and 7). In both datasets, male staff were more likely to be employed on a permanent basis than female staff. 75% of male academics were employed on a permanent basis, compared to 71% of female academics; in our technical group, 77% of male staff and only 63% of female staff hold permanent contracts. The availability of full-time work also varied; where 69% of all academic staff were employed full-time, 75% of male academic staff and only 63% of female academic staff were on full-time contracts. Although technicians on the whole were more likely to be working full-time, the difference in mode of employment between men and women was even more stark for technical staff than it was for academics, with 93% of male technicians and 75% of female technicians working full-time, compared to 86% of technicians overall. 

Figure 6. Contracts and mode of employment by gender for academic staff 

Figure described in text

Figure 7. Contracts and mode of employment by gender for technical staff 

Figure described in text

Male technicians outnumber female technicians in general, but female technicians are over-represented amongst part-time staff. Thus 41% of all technicians in our dataset are female, but 72% of technicians working part-time are female. A less extreme version of the same pattern holds true for academic staff, where we see that 47% of all academic staff are female, but 57% of part-time academic staff are female. 

What have we learned about technicians? 

Overall, our comparison of technical and academic staff paints a mixed picture. On the one hand, we see that, in both academic and technical roles, men outnumber women and are more likely to be employed on a full-time basis. Amongst technical staff, this difference is magnified, with male technical staff eighteen percentage points more likely to be working full-time than their female counterparts. 

On the other hand, we see a technical workforce that compares favourably to the academic workforce on many measures. Although the difference in employment terms between male and female technicians is stark, both male and female technicians are more likely to be employed full-time than their academic counterparts; male technicians are also more likely to be employed on a permanent basis. This view of technicians as mostly full-time, frequently permanent members of staff supports anecdotal descriptions of technicians as repositories of institutional memory and a crucial ingredient in the glue that holds departments together. 

Previous work has drawn attention to the highly skilled nature of technical roles, and the technicians in our dataset were a highly qualified group. The 2022 TALENT Commission Report identified twelve Standard Occupational Classification (SOC) codes for technical roles, six of which were in SOC major group 3, one of the major groups often used to define graduate level work.[5] When the TALENT Commission looked at technicians in the HESA Staff record for 2018/19, the last year before non-academic staff data became optional, 92% of the technicians they identified were in those six graduate level occupational groups. While our dataset does not allow us to classify technicians according to their occupations, our analysis suggests that the technical workforce is, increasingly, a graduate workforce, with 77% of all technical staff and 87% of those aged 21 to 30 qualified to first degree level or higher. 

The technical workforce, then, appears to be one in which highly skilled graduates can find graduate level employment, and the NTDC Technician Survey provides a wealth of information about the skills which technicians hold and how they use those skills in their work. While much of this information was beyond the scope of the current project, 71% of the technicians in our dataset said that their work supported teaching, and 79% said that their work supported research. Technicians may not be classified as academic staff, but these figures show that most technicians are closely connected to the academic work that goes on in their institutions. 

Our comparison of Technician Survey data with data on academic staff from the HESA Staff record can only give us a snapshot of how technicians fit into the higher education workforce. Although our analysis suggests that technicians, as a group, are highly qualified and deeply embedded in the academic life of their institutions, the lack of comprehensive, sector-wide data on technicians makes it difficult to understand the full range of contributions which technicians make to the higher education sector. More complete data on technicians could help both to support staff currently in technical roles and to encourage progress towards a more diverse technical workforce. 

[1] For more detail about the Technician Commitment, see: Hello | Technicians (

[2] For more detail about their work, see: NTDC.

[3] The TALENT Commission Report is available here:

[4] See Looking to the future for our technical community - HEPI.

[5]  TALENT Commission Report, p. 46.

Lucy Van Essen Fishman

Lucy Van Essen-Fishman

Policy and Research Manager

Jerry Bond

National Technician Development Centre contributors:


Dr Sara Bacon, Centre Manager


Jared Carnie, Operations Manager and Skills Audit Officer


Savannah Lawson, Marketing and Communications Officer


Ollie Manton, Survey Officer