Putting the HR in higher education

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HR in higher education has unique challenges and opportunities. We explore what’s on HR’s radar and how universities must adapt

Ask someone 10 years or so ago about their immediate impressions of UK universities and a certain set of images would likely emerge. Seminars in old, dusty, wood-panelled studies, with octogenarian professors dozing quietly in the corner. Lectures but twice weekly (or whenever professors, bemused and harried by their teaching responsibilities, deigned to deliver them), with the rest of the time spent drinking (beer or tea) in crumbling student ‘digs’…

In times gone by university was a slightly mysterious, eccentric place, particularly for those who’d never encountered it firsthand. The sector was often vaguely bundled together

in professional circles with the public sector, and assumed to face a similar set of operational and organisational challenges.

But how times have changed. No longer a sleepy slightly forgotten bubble, the higher education (HE) sector now makes headline news on a regular basis, usually in relation to the seismic changes set in motion by the 2010 decision to raise the tuition fee cap to £9,000 per year. (But recently also in connection with freedom of speech debates and exposés of campus harassment and misogyny.)

Take Theresa May’s announcement this February of a major review into funding, and ongoing controversy around senior remuneration and vice chancellor (VC) pay; something the Committee of University Chairs (CUC) sought to confront with the introduction of its voluntary remuneration code in June.

Then there’s been the controversial plans to overhaul the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) pension (home to 400,000 members from 67 universities and colleges), which triggered walkouts of academic staff across the UK earlier this year; 14 days of teaching were lost to strikes on 65 university campuses in February and March alone. (Talk soon turned to those lost days and refunding the tuition missed – with 150 students in Wales currently in a £5 million legal battle for compensation, and Ulster University suggesting exam marks be bumped up for affected students.)

What such headlines have showcased is the unique – and often slightly sidelined by non-HE professionals – set of HR challenges universities and colleges in the UK now face.

But this sector has always represented a pretty individual setup and set of issues, say those in the know. “We often get boxed in as public sector but that’s limiting,” says University of Strathclyde’s HRD and chair of professional body Universities Human Resources (UHR) Sandra Heidinger. “We’re independent government units so – from my experience – we are much more agile and easier to turn.”

Conflating higher education HR issues with ones faced by the private sector is also unhelpful, says James Saville, University of Edinburgh’s director of HR. “The private sector has the advantage of being able to throw money at the problem, whereas we have to choose where to invest money very carefully,” he says.

“At the moment we are facing lots of challenges that are similar to those in both the public and private sectors, but with different twists,” Heidinger adds.

Student or customer?

The chief unique “twist” higher education institutions (HEIs) currently face is universities now representing something of a hybrid model – perceived as having both an important public duty to carry out but also obligations to students as consumers.

Higher fees (with loan interest rates anticipated to increase again) have spurred students to demand more. “Students think of themselves as customers now and institutions need to think of them this way too,” says Moira Clark, professor of strategic marketing at Henley Business School and director of the Henley Centre for Customer Management.

“The relationship between student experience and academic performance and pay is being talked about now more than ever,” agrees Paul Boustead, Lancaster University’s director of HR and OD and vice chair of UHR. “If students are paying a lot of money, and not getting the best-quality provision for this money then this is a big HR issue.”

The problem, Clark points out, is that universities haven’t looked at students in this way before: “It’s a challenge to get academics to see themselves in customer service roles.

“And for HR there’s a challenge to recruit and train academic staff who are customer-orientated, have good interpersonal skills and are team players. Some people may have the skills but not be communicative or team-focused, and may just want to sit in a corner and do their job. But I think those days are gone – academics can’t do that anymore.”

Chasing numbers

There’s a danger, however, that with this quest for a much more customer-centric approach and greater ‘obsession’ with staff performance HR could be complicit in pushing things too far the other way.

HEIs have always faced metrics in the form of university league tables; the teaching excellence framework (TEF), which records the quality of teaching; and the research excellence framework (REF), which assesses the quality of research. But now with increased pressure on academics to deliver in more measurable ways this is placing undue pressure on employees, says author and entrepreneur Margaret Heffernan.

In the qualitative world of academia these quantitative measures are causing what she terms “perverse behaviours”. Among academic staff the REF and TEF are behind a perceived rise in data slicing and citation circles, she explains. “If you can get promoted by publishing five papers but can only realistically research one then of course you will slice it into lots of small episodes,” Heffernan argues. “Everyone is at this game just like everyone is also making citation circles – where I’ll cite you if you’ll cite me and he cites her…”

This is creating concerns around wellbeing, according to director of HR services at University of London Simon Cain, who describes this as “an added layer of pressure staff face”.

For Heffernan these matters are the very product of an environment where “you take a lot of self-motivated and intelligent people and treat them like children with KPIs and targets”. “The whole system is mad, bad and out of date,” she adds.

And these “perverse behaviours” aren’t restricted to academia. The same shift seems to be happening among recruiters, which presents a worrying trend for HR.

As Cain explains: “Prior to the first REF in 2014 there was a lot of poaching of staff, purely for the purpose of buying in academics with good research papers so the HEI would perform well. So this posed a retention issue.”

New rules for the 2021 REF mean that papers remain with the institution where they were written, not with the academic, so it is hoped this behaviour will be somewhat avoided. But some will no doubt continue, meaning HR needs to lead a pushback against such activity; and also potentially rethink the use of metrics and their impact on staff engagement.

VC pay debate

This new customer-centric direction is also behind greatly-intensified scrutiny recently on the disparity between vice chancellor (VC) pay and frontline staff’s. In line with increased focus on executive pay and corporate governance at private firms, the media and general public’s attention has turned to the high pay of VCs and senior academics.

According to research from the University and College Union (UCU), university heads received a salary package averaging 6.5 times that of their staff in the 2015/16 academic year. The UCU then revealed in February 2018 that nine out of 10 VCs sit on or attend the remuneration committees that decide these salaries.

Receiving most attention has been Bath University’s VC Glynis Breakwell. Before standing down following protests across campus, as well as investigations into the committee’s conduct, she took home a pay packet of £468,000 – the highest VC salary in the UK. Stoking dissatisfaction was the fact that Breakwell was a member of the remuneration committee behind her pay rises – which equalled almost £200,000 in just five years.

UCU general secretary Sally Hunt articulates the frustration VC pay has provoked among staff, students and the wider public: “Staff pay [in HE] has fallen by 17% in real terms since 2009... The austerity imposed on the many has been in stark contrast to the largesse enjoyed by a few as inflation-busting pay hikes for VCs, outlandish expense claims, and grace-and-favour houses have continued to embarrass the sector.

“The scandals surrounding VC pay and perks have highlighted the lack of transparency around senior pay in our universities and exposed the lack of governance.”

It’s a sentiment shared by Heffernan, who describes it as “foolish” to allow “the people who students have a primary relationship with [academic staff] to feel disenfranchised and disrespected”.

She adds that “the sheer gap between top and bottom pay is an enormous problem”.

Heffernan points out that university HR professionals shouldn’t assume quite so readily that VCs and other senior staff would be motivated principally by high salaries. While this might be more of a driver for some private sector individuals, academic staff are much more likely to be driven by pure love of their subject and job, she says.

“Think of scientists who could work in the City as data analysts for a tonne of money... They choose to stay because they love what they do.” “Money is a terrible motivator” in general regardless of sector, she adds.

However, others would argue that if universities want to compete for the best in the way of international talent then upping the pay stakes matters. “In some circumstances, where pay is egregious, it’s simple. But in other cases it’s not quite as clear cut,” says University of London’s Cain.

“Only a few people can do the job of the VC and often we’re competing with North America and Australia for talent where HEIs pay a lot higher. In the UK we’re fishing from a fairly small pool of quality individuals, and because of that they do seek high salaries.”

Chris Sayers, CUC chair and chair of governors at Northumbria University, agrees: “Global competition is hotting up in the sector. Where we have 162 HEIs in the UK there are thousands in China and Malaysia for instance. And they’re getting better and better so we’re now operating in the most competitive global marketplace we have ever seen.

“If we’re going to sustain our world-class institutions it’s vital we’re able to recruit, retain and reward the people who lead and develop them.”

There’s a lack of understanding around the complexity of the VC role, believes Sayers. “The VC is multiple roles. It’s like being the CEO of a major global business as many are the same size as FTSE 100 businesses and have companies and partnerships all over the world. It is also like being the mayor of a small town, looking after thousands of staff and being responsible for the wellbeing of students 24/7 across the town or city,” he explains.

It’s this lack of understanding that needs redressing, say some. Others point to the importance of focusing attention away from quantum and instead towards the rationale for VC pay packets – an argument also made in relation to so-called ‘excessive’ CEO pay packets.

Efforts to do so have arisen in the form of the CUC’s HE Senior Staff Remuneration Code, which sets out three principles for HEIs: remuneration must be fair, appropriate and justifiable; the procedure for setting pay must be fair and independent with the head of the institution not a member of the remuneration committee; and the process for setting pay must be transparent and public.

Although voluntary, any institution not adopting the code is required to explain why. It is also anticipated that the independent sector regulator Office for Students will adopt the code into a formal mandatory policy in the near future.

It’s a step Lancaster University’s Boustead suggests is “broadly welcomed by the HR community as most have been following this agenda for some time”. But for Cain the code presents “a pressing issue” in terms of the potentially increased administrative burden for HR, and even hotter – potentially unreasonable – scrutiny on senior pay. “We are going to have to provide more information than before, and it isn’t just VC pay that will be made visible but [that of] other senior staff too,” he says.

Other critics, such as the UCU’s Hunt, suggest it’s a problem that “cannot be solved without proper representation of staff and students on university committees”, and that the code could be something of a blunt instrument without such supporting measures.

Pensions turmoil

Complicating this reward conundrum further is controversy over university pensions. Academic staff may previously have been open to accepting lower salaries than their private sector counterparts – and less incensed by steep VC pay packets – because they felt this was made up for by the promise of a good pension.

“The psychological contract” in HE is a “trade-off between remuneration and a defined benefit pension”, confirms Cain. Pressure has come, however, as a result of the pension provider USS proposing a move to a defined contribution pension scheme.

HR leaders shouldn’t leave this all in the hands of the unions, says University of Strathclyde’s Heidinger. “The key for me has been constant communication and getting the message out there that we realise the importance of these pensions,” she says. “For us it’s been a good example that communication is king.”

The challenge for HR, explains Cain, is that the USS pension scheme mainly affects employees at pre-1992 HEIs. Those at post-1992 HEIs have a separate defined benefit scheme that remains untouched.

“There’s a risk that pre-‘92 will lose talent to post-‘92,” he warns. “There’s a certain amount of prestige in pre-‘92 and many are dismissive of post-‘92. But if people believe their pension is integral to their lives – which many do – then some might feel they have no choice but to drift to post-‘92.”

Which brings us to the important issue of attracting and retaining not just VC but all levels of talent. The answer may lie in HR taking back control of reward and giving it a complete makeover.

It might come as a surprise to those in private sector HR that few universities have a comprehensive reward strategy in place. Cain points out that it’s a problem HR hasn’t largely had to worry about for the duration of his time in HE. “The majority of staff pay is determined

by sector-level negotiations between trade unions and the employer body, so historically a reward strategy hasn’t been something universities have needed to talk about and we haven’t had to do anything creative within the reward space,” he says.

“But if the pension scheme changes, and pressure continues to mount on senior pay, then we may have to rethink our whole reward proposition.”

For Heffernangreater control should extend to the remuneration committee. “I think it’s a huge mistake that HR was sometimes left out of the room when VC pay was discussed,” she argues. “HR needs to be at the table reminding everyone else in the room that this is a people business.”

Tapping into the international talent pool

And there are other challenges around talent attraction and retention beyond reward, with Brexit inevitably a key concern. While the uncertainty around the UK’s exit from the European Union is an issue public and private sector organisations are also contending with, HE is a sector where international talent plays a perhaps even more significant role.

“Academic staff come from all over the world. In terms of competition we operate very much in the global marketplace so when we look for staff we’re not looking in Glasgow or even in the UK, we’re putting job adverts out all over the world,” says Heidinger.

Take the University of Sheffield: 21% of its workforce come from overseas, made up of 9% from EU countries and 12% from other overseas nations in 2017/18. These figures have remained steadfast since the Brexit vote. But, says associate director of HR Rob Gower: “much of our concern is not what happened immediately after the vote but what will happen next year after Brexit happens and the years after”.

For Gower the problem Brexit poses is twofold: “the practical and the emotional implications”. In the practical corner stands the possibility of new visa regimes and complex immigration processes, acting as a barrier to retaining existing and recruiting future employees. Additionally, some major research projects at UK universities are currently funded by EU grants or conducted through collaboration with EU universities – both of which may cease depending on the outcome of negotiations.

Gower and his team were quick to set up advice pages for EU employees, organise immigration advice sessions, offer reimbursements for permanent residency applications, and provide a free legal helpline.

But, by Gower’s own admission, the HR team missed a trick on the emotional side. “A research fellow from the EU sent an email to the vice chancellor setting out the emotional impact of what was going on,” Gower explains. “It hit home that we hadn’t got it right because we had given a procedural response to what is a very emotional issue. We’d seen it as process but it’s actually about engagement and the softer stuff.”

The university has responded by turning its attention to providing a space where employees can “emotionally dump their feelings”, setting up a working group of EU colleagues and HR to put in place support that fits their needs. Out of this has arisen wellbeing events, a photography exhibition showcasing the EU employees’ contributions to the city, and university chaplaincy support.

“It’s been difficult to give staff clarity as we’re sitting in a vacuum not knowing the outcome ourselves,” says Gower. “But employees have said they don’t need certainty, they just need to see we care.”

Keeping it casual

Another headline-grabbing HE issue concerns the sector’s casual labour force. HEIs have long employed certain workers on casual contracts, from seasonal staff to visiting lecturers, and so are being pulled into wider debates around worker exploitation.

As far as UCU’s Hunt is concerned, “for too long universities have relied on an army of insecure workers”. She cites UCU figures showing that 46% of universities use zero-hours contracts to deliver teaching. The UCU’s stance is that HEIs should employ workers securely and it has launched a campaign to stamp out the casualisation of contracts.

“For thousands of staff precarious contracts are a grim reality where they don’t know if they’ll have a job next year or even what their income might be next month… staff have a right to dignity at work. The time has come for much better data on how much undergraduate teaching is being done by non-permanent staff,” Hunt argues.

So pressure is mounting on HR university leaders to rethink how their staff are employed. But not everyone thinks this negative picture gives a true insight into what’s going on.

“Universities have always had an element of ‘casual’ labour because of matters such as seasonal fluctuations, the length of time it takes to establish new degree programmes (meaning we have to test the market before launching them), and provision of opportunities for PhD students,” points out Mary Luckiram, director of HR at City, University of London.

PhD students will often teach on a casual basis as part of their courses, something that is widely seen as an opportunity for their own development. Then there’s visiting lecturers who can be practising professionals such as journalists or barristers employed on an hourly rate.

“Our visiting lecturers are on permanent contracts with terms of service, and we offer them a schedule of hours each year,” Luckiram says. “But a barrister is not going to want to take a full-time role at a university as they are a practising professional and that’s why their expertise is hugely valuable for teaching.”

So the issue of the casualisation of HE labour isn’t clear cut. Which means HR shouldn’t perhaps get spooked by negative gig economy coverage, but rather stand firm in employment arrangements they believe work well for both parties.

“Of course HR is paying more attention to it and reviewing it. But we’re not losing sleepless nights as we have good opportunities in place that work for both parties,” feels Luckiram.

Engaging academia

But whatever camp you sit in regarding ‘gig’ staff, their potentially growing number brings the perennial issue of engaging academic staff into sharp relief. Engaging academics has never been easy, points out Heidinger – and may become even tougher where staff work only some of the time at a particular institution.

“If we say ‘hello professor Jo Bloggs we would like you to be engaged’, that type of HR speak is alien to [academics],” says Heidinger. “The whole point is we are looking for individual, independent thinkers.”

Cain agrees. “When I first started in HE I met an academic who said the stupidest thing an HR person had said to him was that his loyalty was to the institution,” he says. Many academics will often regard their colleagues and peers as those they collaborate on research with, who often fall outside the parameters of the institution.

And within the same institution these collegiate feelings don’t necessarily extend to non-academic staff, he explains.

Heidinger believes, however, that the internal siloes this can create are much less pronounced than when she joined the sector two decades ago. “I was quite aware of an ‘us and them’ culture between academic and administrative staff,” she says. “But this has vastly improved as I think they realise they both need each other.”

This dichotomy between wanting to be part of a certain subject discipline, but also be part of this discipline within a successful institution presents an opportunity for HR.

“For an academic, over and above what drives them to want to work somewhere is who they get to work with,” explains Luckiram. Heidinger agrees that the quality of academic colleagues is the main draw for other academics joining an institution.

“More often than not it’s not the recruitment campaign but the other colleagues that attracts people,” she says. For HR, then, the most critical part of engagement is whether employees would recommend working there to someone else.

The lure of impressive colleagues is just one piece of the puzzle though. Heidinger points out that most will already have a link to a particular university, such as a degree or experience collaborating with an academic there on a research project. But when it comes to institutions capitalising on a reputation for top academic talent there is space to step up.

“Universities have intrinsic not extrinsic motivators,” Luckiram says. Where HR could do more is in showcasing the “employer brand” of the institution. Again this HR language is best avoided though: “of course we’d never use that term with academic staff”, Luckiram adds.

A unique opportunity

So the world of HE has always been unique in terms of the HR challenges it presents. And with issues such as pensions, VC pay, KPIs and customer-service versus boundary-breaking research mounting, it wouldn’t be entirely surprising for a university HR leader to admit to one or two sleepless nights.

But it also seems a sector where HR has plenty of opportunities to make its mark. As Saville puts it: “It’s like trying to play 3D chess on occasions, but it’s also great in that the very nature of HE is all about improvement.

“Whether that’s research, education, or whatever it is, you’re always trying to do better.”

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