University personnel directors believe trade unions and a conservative, fearful culture are holding universities back, according to a document leaked to Times Higher Education.
The confidential document, produced by consultants Hay Group, collated feedback from a June workshop for human resources directors on "doing more with less". The event was organised by Universities Human Resources.
The report says the sector's current employment model is "looking increasingly inappropriate". "Senior HR people believe that the time has come to challenge how the trade unions influence the 'business' of higher education, and realise that the traditional approach is holding back individual institutions and the sector in its totality," it says. "Workload models no longer fit new styles of service delivery, are ineffective and too inflexible."
The document, A Challenging Time for Universities, also states that statutes, ordinances and other governance requirements leave the sector lacking agility in decision-making, and describes the culture of higher education as "fearful and conservative".
Staff ratios should be benchmarked with other kinds of organisation, it recommends, and universities should be "more assiduously leveraging academic excellence as an organisational strength".
It concludes that workforce modernisation, better employee engagement, simplification of systems and "talent management" will increase productivity during the lean years.
Noting that many universities have already frozen recruitment and introduced voluntary redundancy schemes, it says: "And this is just the start - the real squeeze is yet to come."
Universities will find constraining costs difficult, it adds, as even if there is no national pay rise, salaries will increase through increments.
"There is increasing debate about pension scheme deficits and the extremely high cost of maintaining final salary schemes," the report says.
Meanwhile, Unite has rejected an offer of a 0.5 per cent pay rise in 2009-10 and has declared a dispute with employers.
Other campus unions are still consulting on the offer, which was made by the Universities and Colleges Employers Association on 15 July.
The University and College Union, which made an 8 per cent pay claim last year, will not release the results of its consultation until after a Higher Education Committee meeting on 9 October.
Unison's consultation will run until September and the results are likely to be announced after a meeting on 2 October.
It is seeking information from all universities about their spending on agency staff and vice-chancellors' salaries. Some vice-chancellors are understood to have argued for higher salaries to offset the larger tax deductions they will have to pay next year under a new tax regime for high earners.
A Unison spokeswoman said: "We have written to universities to find out their financial position, and expect to have the information by the end of this month.
"We will be looking to find out if there is a level playing field on pay, and using it to prove that savings can be made without resorting to compulsory redundancies."