How do they manage?

Most people enter academe to delve into a subject, not to manage. To improve personnel administration, universities have beefed up HR departments with staff and strategies from outside campus. Hannah Fearn appraises how well they have done

March 27, 2008

There is a certain smugness, perhaps not undeserved, afoot in university human resources departments these days. It is born of the fact that HR departments have achieved something of a quiet revolution.

Since 2000, when the Government made available £330 million over three years to help universities recruit, retain and develop staff, HR departments have changed dramatically and their influence has extended into almost every aspect of university life. The number of HR professionals on campus has grown, with many joining from the business world. New human resource strategies have been rolled out, and staff have received training on numerous leadership courses.

In many respects, the rise of human resources management in higher education was a response to changes in the wider employment environment, for instance new legislation about health and safety and equal opportunities. Arguably, it was also a response to a longstanding lack of resources and professionalism in university HR management.

But just how far-reaching and effective has the HR revolution been, and can it really make a difference in the unique environment of academe?

The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development says that higher education presents a particular challenge to human resources management because it has such a diverse range of staff, academic and non-academic, within a traditional (and very likely outdated) reward, recognition and promotion system.

These issues tend to be most problematic in the older, highly ranked universities, says Martyn Sloman, an adviser on learning, training and development at the institute. In such institutions it can be very difficult to introduce new HR systems, he says.

"There is some very good practice out there, alongside some very bad practice. Clearly there is an issue about whether academics are interested in effective management. There is an unwillingness to accept management roles and responsibilities," says Sloman.

This attitude is not found in other sectors, where mere technical excellence is not considered sufficient reason for rapid promotion, Sloman says. In higher education, such prevailing attitudes have had a harmful effect, he believes. "Our view here is that the emphasis on research assessment has been damaging in terms of management capability."

In spring 2005, William Archer identified the source of the problem for universities. In his report Mission Critical? Modernising Human Resource Management in Higher Education, published by the Higher Education Policy Institute, he found that academics in managerial positions tend not to focus on the people-management aspect of their jobs.

Three years on, that is still the case, says Archer, the director of International Graduate Insight Group (i-graduate). "I think that's one of the remaining issues. Many staff in managerial positions in higher education still don't see people management as a core part of their position."

The problem has been exacerbated by traditional reward and promotion strategies, he continues. "Given the sector's long history of rewarding achievement with promotion, it's natural that people have ended up in positions that they might not particularly have chosen. There aren't many people who consciously go into higher education in order to manage. That's not why people do it."

Archer believes that many of the challenges outlined in his 2005 report are being met. In most universities, HR directors now sit on the executive management team. Management training is also trickling down the ranks, being offered to most staff with managerial responsibilities, not just the most senior figures.

But traditions die hard. The legacies of filling posts by election or rotation and of antiquated reward schemes are proving hard to shake off. That resistance to change could prove harmful, especially now that academics and senior registrars take an international view of their careers. In the global battle for talent, UK higher education lags behind Australia and the US in using HR initiatives to attract staff.

Although much has been done by HR departments and by the Universities and Colleges Employers Association to harmonise pay scales with the creation of a single pay framework, reward schemes such as performance-related increments have not, generally speaking, followed suit.

"I wouldn't say that the UK is leading the way on this," Archer says. "There is still some very old-fashioned reward and recognition in the financial sense. That is now so far out of step with the private sector and also (with universities) internationally."

The Leadership Foundation for Higher Education recently surveyed the state of universities' human resources systems, and its analysis, published late last year, drew some interesting and rather surprising conclusions.

Across the sector, it said, formal training and staff appraisal were being introduced, and HR directors were implementing performance management and rolling out succession-planning schemes. However, it found no overall link between HR activities in universities and the standard indicators of the institutions' performance such as student numbers, research ranking and financial performance.

Most universities reported that HR was well integrated and supported by senior management. But HR directors were not sure that this support was being extended further down the chain, especially to those who were expected to implement HR policies.

Ewart Wooldridge, chief executive of the Leadership Foundation, says universities have proved their commitment to effective HR by placing it at the highest strategic level, as 56 per cent of HR directors said they were a member of the senior management team.

"You're seeing a slow revolution in higher education," he says. "That statistic shows the willingness of senior leaders in higher education to take HR seriously. That compares favourably with almost any other sector. But it's not just about being on the top team, it's how all HR people operate."

Innovations in staff management, including the introduction of performance management techniques from the private sector, are essential, Wooldridge argues. "I think it's absolutely critical that there is a form of performance management, and that it's professionally supported by professionally developed HR people."

He cites the report as confirmation of "good and steady progress" towards better HR. However, he says, it contains no clear evidence that such improvements make an institution more effective and successful, which is, after all, the point of HR management.

"The report doesn't show a strong correlation between these two things," Wooldridge admits, "but then you have to ask yourself how easy is it to make a difference."

Three institutions have taken a leaf out of the foundation's book and are attempting to measure the impact of improved HR on higher education. The universities of Birmingham, Bristol and Leeds are seeking money from the Higher Education Funding Council for England to support a project that aims to quantify the benefits of HR management and, specifically, whether they make any difference to institutional performance.

"Virtually all universities say, 'People are our greatest asset,'?" says David Harrison, assistant director of human resources at the University of Birmingham. "The question is how that shows in our practice and how we demonstrate it. You can measure staff participation in initiatives and schemes - but is that converting into universities' improving performance? We want to identify the motivators."

Harrison, who has responsibility for workplace wellbeing at Birmingham, is acutely aware of the need to adapt HR to suit higher education. "The culture of academia is to be loosely managed, and that links to fundamentals about academic freedom. I think there can be a clash between staff and the stuff that needs to be done to comply with employment law. There is always that tension," he says.

John Hogan, registrar at the University of Newcastle, says managers must remember that what makes universities strong is academic freedom and scholars' dedication to their subjects. Crushing that through heavy-handed management is not desirable, he says.

"We tend to employ very bright people and give them the freedom and flexibility to develop their talents. We absolutely do not want to destroy what makes a great university," Hogan says. "Higher education is a special environment. But there is a cultural change process going on here. Academic freedom and flexibility have to be balanced with the needs of the institution."

Hogan, who is due to lead a session at next week's conference of the Association of University Administrators at the University of York, says appraisals and performance management are key to improving the effectiveness in higher education.

"You appoint someone to a job on the basis of his or her qualifications, experience and performance and/or behaviour," he explains. "Performance and behaviour are the most difficult to test in an interview, yet it is these that overwhelmingly determine how successful a person is."

Changes to HR at the University of Southampton have already led to demonstrable benefits. The university was one of the first institutions to adopt Ucea's framework agreement, which introduced a coherent pay scale for employees. It is now pioneering the development of new career paths within higher education.

Southampton has also brought in a new HR and payroll computer system that lets staff communicate with their colleagues in human resources from their desks, and it is sending its heads of departments on extensive leadership development programmes run by Ashridge Consulting.

"All the early signs are good if you look at our performance in the international league tables. If the HR department isn't making an impact on that, then it's not acting in a strategic way," says Tony Strike, director of human resources at Southampton.

However welcome developments in HR may be to senior management, they often raise suspicions among members of staff and trade unions. That's exactly what happened at Leeds Metropolitan University last year. Managers came under attack after announcing plans to introduce a new staff performance and development system based around a document that detailed the attitudes, characters and talents (ACT) expected of Leeds Met personnel. Some staff viewed the ACT as an attack on traditional academic freedom and critical thinking.

But in January, both the University and College Union and campus union Unison agreed to the ACT initiative. They signed up to it and to the performance and development system it underpins. The scheme will be launched in September.

"There is a deep-seated suspicion of performance review because the automatic assumption is that these are tools to beat people with," says Steve Pashley, director of human resources at Leeds Met. "So it was a major shift for academe to agree to something like this, and I think it's pretty unusual for the sector. Looking to the future, I think we will see more of these types of systems in place."

Pashley says the unions agreed because the system was linked to the new pay framework and to contribution awards (pay rises awarded on merit). Staff wanted to be rewarded for doing their jobs well, but they feared that poor performance could mean financial penalties. An assurance from management that no one would be worse off overcame many concerns.

The experiences show that staff can be persuaded that changes are for the good, but management has to work hard to make the case and to reassure academics that the unique nature of their work will be respected.

"That staff achieve so much, often despite the best efforts of those in charge, demonstrates that they are determined to retain the spirit of what a university should be, even in this age of marketisation," says Sally Hunt, general secretary of the UCU. "They need support from those in charge, including open and transparent governance of our institutions and a renewed commitment to the principles of higher education as first and foremost a learning environment."

HR management on campus has come a long way in a short time, and the Universities Personnel Association is keen to emphasise the achievement. Susan Rutherford, the UPA chair, believes that higher education has made incredible progress.

"We have had a really challenging agenda, and a lot of modernisation has taken place," she says.

The association says the global competition for staff and the struggle to develop and keep employees will be the key issues occupying universities in the next few years. Many HR managers are alive to the need to continue improving support in areas such as work-life balance, personal development and staff support services.

"We must stay energised, and we must look ahead," Rutherford says.

For all that it has accomplished, the university HR revolution still has a way to go. Many staff remain wary of it, and the true extent of its impact has yet to be quantified.


Human resources strategies in higher education have been focused on creating a working culture built on retention, trust, motivation, performance, commitment, engagement and wellbeing.

But in coming years, the strategic challenge will revolve around out-of-work issues such as family, multiculturalism, environment and the learning society. We must start now to think about:

  • Adapting to employees who communicate through texting, blogging and social-networking websites
  • Shouting "that's enough" to the daily grind of commuting to sterile offices that are already available in virtual form
  • Giving organisations incentives to help them create community-based centres with videoconferencing facilities where people can work in facilities that are linked to childcare, schools and shops
  • Attending to the HR-related outcomes of the pensions crisis
  • Deciding how best to motivate and reward a generation that reaches the top of their profession in their thirties and early forties
  • Developing managers by taking them outside their comfort zones through community-based projects, career-break schemes and more awaydays without the paintballing.

The make-or-break issue for the next generation of managers will be to award licences to practise for those who can demonstrate that they have the emotional intelligence and possess the "soft" cognitive skills that are necessary in conflict management and resolution, mediation and coaching and mentoring.

Get things wrong, and you lose your licence. But catch people doing things right! Now that would be different.

Ian Farrand is a human resources consultant with Watson Burton LLP; he was previously director of personnel at Nottingham Trent University. He is due to speak at a workshop on "Everything you wanted to know about HR but were afraid to ask" at the Association of University Administrators conference at the University of York (31 March-2 April). He writes in a personal capacity.

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