Personnel chiefs mourn unions

September 15, 1995

Union leaders might find it hard to believe, but the potentially precarious state of their organisations is a major worry for personnel chiefs in higher education.

The implications of dwindling union membership numbers for accurately gauging staff views during industrial disputes is not the only concern.

At the heart of the matter are the need for consultation and feedback on policy plans; cooperation and advice on the impact of European laws; building an appropriate promotion and reward structure for staff at all levels; and the costs of recruiting and replacing those who have left because they do not feel committed to the institution.

While William Sutherland, the incoming chairman of the Universities Personnel Association, is adamant that personnel staff have a clear management role, he and many of his peers acknowledge that without cooperation it is all too easy to lose control. More decisions may then begin to be imposed from above, often resulting in even greater tension and resentment among staff.

This is the scenario that delegates to the association's annual conference, held last week in Cardiff are keen to avoid. In a workshop session Roland Buckley, director of personnel at Plymouth University, put forward one simple argument for preferring strong over weak union membership.

"If you have no way of tapping into people's views then they will start to subvert and disrupt what you are trying to do. We can come up with far better policies if we have the help and cooperation of staff," he said.

Plymouth is in the process of setting up a staff association which could acquire union status, in an effort to bridge the communication gap among existing unions - particularly those for manual, administrative and technical staff.

While many delegates were sceptical about staff associations (one described an existing staff association with automatic membership at the University of London as "dead in the water"), there was clear concern that in many institutions, unions were "no longer in the game" as far as policy decisions were concerned.

Many of the issues raised at the conference showed that this is a bad time for personnel managers to be out of touch with staff.

An ambitious, and potentially controversial, scheme to create a model for evaluating and classifying all jobs in higher education, is unlikely to get much further than its present, early stages, if it runs into heavy staff resistance.

One of the driving forces behind the scheme is the need to meet new European law requirements for equality of treatment of staff within institutions.

As much as they are worried about this, however, personnel heads were most keen to protect their own position within higher education. The practice of head-hunting, often done against their wishes, made them nervous.

Peter Bryant, a partner with headhunters GKRS, commented: "Personnel professionals are frustrated that they are often bypassed and not allowed in on the headhunting process."

Delegates at one workshop confirmed they felt excluded in many recruitment decisions. One commented: "We are really relying on our good communication with staff to maintain our professional standing. Many feel that it is not acknowledged in higher education."

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