A major new report has found that university HR departments get high marks for the progress they've made at senior level, with many having a firm place at the top table. But John Charlton finds that they have much work to do to make themselves effective throughout their higher education (HE) institutions, as they fight a 'highly resilient anti-management culture'
Mission Critical? Modernising HR Management in Higher Education, by William Archer, director of the International Graduate Insight Group and non-executive chairman of Global Taskforce, was based on interviews with HR and university heads at 44 UK universities.
These ranged from the long-established universities of Oxford, Cambridge and Glasgow, through the new universities of the 1960s, such as East Anglia and York, to ones based on former polytechnics including Westminster and Coventry.
Archer reports that the "modernisation of the HR function in higher education in recent years has been remarkable. In the space of a few years, in many universities, HR has shifted from administrative support to a valued strategic partner for the top team.
"Most HR heads are working closely with their institutional heads and most have passed the point of discussing whether HR has a place at the top table. Many are actively involved in shaping strategy rather than reacting to it."
So far, so good then. But a key challenge for HE HR will be to drive this success through universities' many managerial ranks. And this will prove a formidable challenge due, in part, to the unique nature of academic life.
For example, the report found that many managers in universities regarded HR as a remote function rather than part of their job. This is partly explained by the nature of academic life: staff focus on their subjects and research fields, success in which raises their profiles, status, and earning potential.
As one university HR director said: "The natural loyalty of academic staff is first to their field of research, second to a wider discipline and third to an institution – the institution that happens to employ them."
And for academics, those they regard as colleagues are just as likely to be peers researching similar subjects around the world, as those they work with.
Subject loyalty is especially strong in research-led institutions, such as the older universities.
Such factors have given rise to a "highly resilient anti-management culture", says the report, "even among managers."
These characteristics have created "possibly the most challenging environment for anyone involved in HR management", Archer says.
"Most academics did not enter higher education with the intention of managing people," he adds. "And the indication from interviewees in the study is that many academics do not naturally prioritise HR management and HR issues in their work.
"Significant continued investment in management development appears to be the key."
Nevertheless the report found heads of HR had changed their department's primary function from central administrative silos to client-facing advisory services, and were driving a "new HR agenda" through the institution they served.
Key to this is aligning institutional goals with personal performance.
Archer found interviewees interpreted this issue in one of three ways: a few questioned the wisdom and feasibility of alignment in an academic context; others focused on managerial roles and how to empower or encourage managers to align or motivate their teams; and some saw the issue as how best to motivate individual staff.
A majority saw a need for their institutions to develop more effective appraisal and accountability systems. But a few said managing academic staff was more of an art than a process. Some admitted that appraisals for academic staff at their institutions were still optional.
Archer says effective appraisal processes linked to recognition and reward and effective two-way internal communication are key to aligning personal performance with institutional objectives.
Performance-related reward schemes operate in many universities but adoption is patchy. Some of the interviewees expressed strong resistance to any form of performance-related pay.
"What we don't like is performance-related pay," said one vice-chancellor. "One, they're very high maintenance. Two, it is bloody hard to avoid favouritism and discrimination. Three, improved performance is not reflected in increased profit, so where does the money come from? And finally, it demoralises everyone who doesnÕt get it."
But most of those interviewed favoured performance-related processes and believe that, at senior level, there was a "close and increasingly explicit connection between performance and reward".
Yet, fewer than one in 10 of those interviewed claimed this worked effectively throughout their institutions.
Nevertheless, this is a nettle that universities must grasp if they want to prosper in what will be a tougher and more demanding business and academic climate.
UK universities operate more than ever in a worldwide market, where there is stiff competition for academic stars and high-quality, fee-paying students. An indication of this is the global rankings of universities, which are dominated by wealthy US institutions.
The report says that over the next 10 years, an extra 19,000 academics will be needed to replace current staff and another 17,000 will be needed if the government's 50% student enrolment target is met.
Universities UK recently predicted that before 2012, some 230,000 new academic staff will need to be recruited in the US, Canada, the UK, Australia and New Zealand.
UK universities, to compete, must adopt recruitment processes driven by an understanding of what makes academic staff join, stay and quit.
Archer concludes: "Response management, selection and assessment processes generally lag behind the private sector. Given the drive towards e-enablement and pressure to reduce costs, these can be expected to receive further attention in the near future."