Research: What is big data on staff engagement telling us?

In this piece from NUS’ Senior HR Consultant, Claire Marsland shares some of the important findings from the national Employee Engagement survey for Students’ Unions.  Now in its fifth year, over 50 different Students’ Unions have taken part in the annual survey since it began in 2013.

NUS has run an employee engagement survey for students union’s since 2013. Managed in partnership with Agenda Consulting, specialists in research and benchmarking in the not-for-profit sector, the survey enables SUs to understand their staff engagement and how it compares to other SUs and the third sector.

Since the survey started, over 55 different SUs have taken part but typically it’s around 33 each year. These are all HE unions and usually those with larger numbers of staff.  Clearly it doesn’t include all SUs, but the combined data gives us a very interesting insight into our movement’s demographic profile and some key themes around engagement, all of which can inform our collective work.

Below is some of the information from this year’s survey that we shared at SU2017 and invited people to discuss. The 2017 survey had 33 SUs, total of 2850 respondents.


(Where totals are less than 100%, the difference is mainly those who chose ‘prefer not to say’)

  • Woman 62%, man 35%
  • 96% have the same gender identity as at birth and 1% have a different gender one
  • 80% define as straight and 14% as LBGQ+
  • 85% white or white British and 12% from an ethnic minority
  • 49% describe themselves as either atheist or as having no religion or faith. 30% are Christian and 5% as one of another listed religion or faith.
  • 11% have a disability or long-term health condition
  • 10% have caring responsibility for people under 18 and 4% for people over 18

This picture has remained largely unchanged since 2014 when we started looking at the collated data. Some characteristics however do appear to be moving a little, but we don’t know the extent to which this is a real increase or to more people being willing to describe themselves in these ways.

Since 2014:

  • People from an ethic minority has increased from 9% to 12%
  • LGBQ+ has increased from 10% to 14%
  • Disability from 9% to 11%
  • People with a different gender identity to that assigned at birth from just above 0 to 1%

Key demographics compared to the 3rd sector and the UK as a whole

Other demographic data:

  • Student staff 56% and non-student staff 44%
  • 62% have a supervisory role and 35% don’t. Of those who have a supervisory role, 55% are women and 41% men.
  • 75% are aged 30 or below
  • Removing student staff from the data, 43% have under two years of service and 57% have over two years.


The survey has a range of questions on how people feel about their employment including reward, leadership, performance management and colleagues. The statement used to measure engagement is “I would wholeheartedly recommend this organisation as a good place to work”. This aims to assess the idea of ‘advocacy’, and responses for this tend to be lower than other engagement themes and to vary more between organisations. This is important because people may be very committed to their work or to their organisation’s mission, particularly in the 3rd sector, but have a less than positive view about what it’s actually like to work there.

Engagement overall is up 2% on 2016 at 83% and is ahead of the 3rd sector by 6%.

Student staff are more engaged than non-student staff across all years (average around 86% vs 72%).

Engagement by demographic

Engagement by block grant

SU Comparison to 3rd sector (71 questions)

Key drivers

When we look at the correlations between engagement and key topic areas, four themes emerge as being particularly important:

  • Leadership
  • Values
  • Communication
  • A sense of belonging and care

Questions which have a correlation of +0.5 and above – which is seen as a strong association in social research – are the key drivers of engagement. Changes in responses to these questions will have a bigger impact. Whilst individual SUs may have different drivers, this set gives us an indication for the wider movement and where we should be focusing our attention.

From highest to lowest correlation:

  • This organisation cares about its employees (+0.67)
  • I trust and respect the leadership group
  • I am treated with fairness, respect and dignity
  • This organisation tries hard to create a sense of belonging
  • The leadership group are able to make the organisation successful
  • This organisation has strong values and operates to high ethical standards
  • The leadership is in touch with the views and opinions of staff
  • The leadership will act on the survey results
  • The organisation practices open, honest communication
  • I see the organisations’ values being acted out in practice (+0.59)
Posted in Research.

One Comment

  1. I’d be keen to see this data split up between student staff and non-student staff for everything, not just engagement.

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