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 a