HR initiatives do not boost universities' performance, study

November 30, 2007

A massive investment in human resource management is having no impact on universities' overall performance, new research has suggested.

A survey carried out on behalf of the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education has shown that although universities' HR directors say they now have well-integrated human resources strategies, there is no demonstrable correlation between HR activity and the overall performance of universities against standard performance indicators such as league tables.

Since 2000, the sector has seen an investment of £880 million under the Government's human resources "rewarding and developing staff" initiative. However, HR directors responding to the survey admitted that they were not certain that the strategies they had put in place were effectively communicated to the academics who have to implement their policies and practices as line managers.

The report, Human Resource Management and University Performance , found that the least effective practices in higher education HR included performance management, succession planning and managing poor performance.

More than half (51 per cent) said they were keen to introduce formal performance management and leadership development programmes to their university.

David Guest, a professor of organisational psychology and human resource management at King's College and co-author of the report in collaboration with research associate Michael Clinton, said although successful HR had been shown to improve overall performance in other sectors, it would be more difficult for human resources initiatives to have an impact in higher education.

"People management (in the university sector) is still relatively underdeveloped," he said. "It started to improve almost ten years ago, from a particularly low base, and it's still got a long way to go. It's clearly possible to get very high performance without particularly sophisticated HR because other things count for a lot more (in higher education)."

The autonomy of academics acting as line managers, and the turnover in these posts, was also thwarting progress in modernising HR.

"I don't think they (HR managers) have got a grasp on it yet because they don't really have much control over the middle managers. The managers are professionals first and managers second," Professor Guest said. "If you're trying to develop a performance culture you need some consistency and some time."

He said academics should not be alarmed by the introduction of modern human resources practices such as performance management. "I think good performance management should be encouraged. What I mean by good performance management is helping individuals to set priorities, goals and expectations, providing regular feedback on performance and progress, ensuring that people have the resources, which includes time, to do their job," Professor Guest said.

But he warned that crude measures such as financial incentives linked to performance would not be suitable for the higher education sector.

Susan Rutherford, chair of the Universities Personnel Association, said it was encouraging that universities overwhelmingly had a strategic HR policy in place.

"The report is very useful," she added. "We recognise that modernisation has taken place."

But Ms Rutherford admitted that there was much to be done to improve HR in higher education. She said universities had been working together to build capacity and should share best practice.

Human Resource Management and University Performance was published last week. It can be viewed at the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education website at

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