Why is recruitment and retention in the university sector more difficult than in other sectors?

Attracting and keeping the best people is a perennial issue for higher education institutions. Here, Jonathan Lord looks at how the pandemic impacted staffing and strategies for improving processes

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Jonathan Lord's avatar
University of Salford
12 May 2022
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Employing and retaining talented, knowledgeable lecturers, researchers and professional service staff is a growing challenge for universities. The rise in global mobility and shifts in demographic profiles have contributed to the situation. This is on top of the fact that universities are already well known to be human resource anomalies, which incorporate divergent operating models, so each institution demands a specific approach to its staffing requirements.

The other challenge with recruitment in higher education is the breadth of skills, qualifications and experience needed; these are balanced against demands on academic management to generate a surplus from devolved budgets. And don’t forget a confused line-management structure, heavily unionised environment, academic power in respective fields, regulatory compliance and ensuring that students are happy as paying customers.

In their efforts to get recruitment right, universities are trying a more substantive model with more diverse interview panels, campus tours and presentations to a large cohort who report into the panel. Essentially, the interview process has become more thorough, intensive and, frankly, cumbersome.

As well as these self-inflicted institutional challenges, key elements influencing job choice, such as pay, also impact the higher education sector. In the UK, academic pay is low relative to other highly qualified jobs (which affects entry into the HE sector as well as retention). Other factors that make staff more likely to leave the HE sector include:

  • dissatisfaction with non-pecuniary elements (such as the work itself, relations with manager, being able to use one’s own initiative, hours, relations with colleagues and physical work conditions)
  • having had a break in one’s academic career
  • being on a non-permanent contract
  • being closer to the end of a fixed-term contract
  • hours worked
  • hours spent on administrative tasks
  • the fewer hours spent on research
  • perception of excessive workload
  • belief that decisions on individual pay, recruitment to senior posts or promotion at their university are not at all fair
  • dissatisfaction with pay and the level of pay.

What are the specific recruitment and retention problems in HE?

The implementation of tuition fees has created a more customer-focused environment, where candidates from the private sector are viewed as having the commercial skills required to handle contemporary students. The introduction of the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF) in 2017, as well as the Office for Students thereafter, resulted in a different demand for university staff skills with more roles in student services to meet new legislation demands.

The main issue, however, lies in the general employment marketplace, which highly favours the candidate. Office for National Statistics’ 2022 figures show that job vacancies reached a record high of 1.1 million at the end of 2021, which is an increase of 318,000 on its pre-pandemic, March 2020 level.

This is not just an HE or even a UK-wide problem, but a global issue dubbed the “Great Resignation”. The term was proposed by Anthony Klotz, from Texas A&M University, which witnessed employees re-evaluating their careers and a record number leaving their jobs in the wake of the Covid crisis.

Although the pandemic certainly exacerbated the change in job movement, a report in the Harvard Business Review identified five factors that together have yielded these changes:

  • retirement 
  • relocation 
  • reconsideration 
  • reshuffling 
  • reluctance. 

Workers are retiring in greater numbers but are not relocating in large numbers; they’re reconsidering their work-life balance and care roles; they are making localised switches among industries or reshuffling rather than exiting the labour market entirely; and, because of pandemic-related fears, they are demonstrating a reluctance to return to in-person jobs.

As has been popular in the private sector, universities have implemented perpetual voluntary redundancy schemes, which have created a vacuum of “institutional memory”. Universities have used interim support to fill these gaps, but this is not sustainable and can impact the student experience.

How can HE address these issues?

Many universities are taking fairly radical action to address the sector’s issues with recruitment and retention, although internal politics and long-term appointments protecting their positions are preventing some from driving required reform.

A large amount of debt is being carried by a number of institutions, and those that are not recruiting to ensure that their operations do not lose money will ultimately have to make tough decisions around proper recruitment and retention practices.

Cross-departmental working will become even more vital for universities as they move to operate as single, joined-up units instead of using traditional departmental silos.

Recruiting the best in class into HE

Many factors affect a university’s ability to attract the best candidates. Important among them is the onus on the recruiting institution to make the applicant feel that the role is a key part of their core business. This would give candidates the confidence that the recruiting institution understood the role and the candidate’s skills and was taking the recruitment process seriously.

Every vacancy is a bespoke role, and while trends are visible across the sector, the variables for each role are unique, and an individual who works well for one institution will not necessarily succeed in another. Therefore, before starting the recruitment process, the institution must be clear about its strengths, weaknesses and plans for the future.

The recruitment of senior professional services staff in HE remains a challenge, with the sourcing and incentivising of those from outside the HE sector being particularly difficult. So clear career development plans and continued personal development programmes, as well as a flexible working environment and staff benefits that universities can offer, are key to attracting and retaining professionals from beyond academia.

Communication among staff is essential for employee satisfaction and reducing turnover, while engendering open communication between manager and employee allows both parties to develop a more trusting relationship and a positive working environment.

Finally, the HE sector can be a siloed community, and the faculties themselves should realise and plan for when certain academic expertise is required and know who the main players are in that field. Staff networks can be used to identify and attract top talent to the institution.

Employees are more likely to remain with the institution if they believe that it has authentic interest in and concern for them and they know what is expected of them. If they are aligned to a role that fits their capabilities, they receive regular recognition and positive feedback, and they are well informed on relevant issues concerning the organisation, then they will likely remain longer in jobs.

Jonathan Lord is a senior lecturer in human resource management at Salford Business School at the University of Salford.

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