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Finding Bold Solutions to HR Issues

on Friday, 21 September 2018.

The HE sector is currently facing many strategic HR challenges and HEIs are looking at how they can achieve desired outcomes effectively in shorter timescales whilst still being legally robust.

External Challenges

There are numerous external factors currently posing HR challenges for HEIs, some of which include:

  • The Teaching Excellence Framework has put the spotlight firmly on teaching performance. HEIs need to ensure teaching performance is sufficiently assessed and recognised and that any underperformance issues are addressed. The introduction of subject-level TEF from 2020 is likely to raise further HR challenges.
  • Students are increasingly seeing themselves as consumers and are willing to take action if they do not believe they are receiving value for money. This was highlighted following the industrial action on the proposed changes to the USS earlier in the year, with students now threatening litigation to recover compensation for lost teaching time.
  • Under the new regulatory framework, the Office of Students has made it clear that it will use its new powers to protect students and their interests which could raise new HR challenges.
  • The changes to the Research Excellence Framework mean that all academics with significant responsibility for research will need to be submitted for the next REF and there will not be the same flexibility to choose who is and is not submitted as there has been in the past. This had led some HEIs to consider increasing the use of teaching-only contracts.
  • The uncertainty of Brexit means some EEA nationals are nervous about taking up posts in the UK and some existing staff are considering leaving the UK. Attracting and retaining talented individuals from the EEA is likely to continue to be a challenge until the post-Brexit position becomes clearer.
  • Since the abolition of the fees regime in employment tribunals last year there has been a huge increase in claims. Whilst the volume of claims has not yet reached the level it was at before the introduction of the fees, HEIs are receiving increasing numbers of tribunal claims, which are typically complex, multi-faceted, time-consuming and costly to defend.

Internal Challenges

As well dealing with external challenges, HR professionals are facing internal challenges, such as:

  • Many HEIs are embarking on transformation and organisational change projects to ensure their structure fits with the changing environment and they have an operating model to best direct spending, attract revenue and reduce costs. As well as resulting in voluntary and/or compulsory redundancies, many of these projects seek to introduce changes to terms and conditions of employment.
  • Attracting and retaining staff and rewarding them can be a challenge as the incremental pay scales used by HEIs give little room for flexibility. Many HEIs are reviewing their strategies for rewarding high performers and some are considering moving away from national pay bargaining, as it does not give them the flexibility they want for remunerating staff.
  • The introduction of gender pay gap reporting has highlighted the paucity of women in senior roles within HEIs. With there also being a lack of BME individuals in senior academic positions, diversity and inclusion are high on the agenda for HR professionals within HEIs.
  • Collaborations and partnerships, whether internationally, with other institutions or educational establishments, or for economies of scale, are on the increase. Whilst these can present great opportunities, they also present significant HR challenges.

A Policy for Everything

Against this background, HEIs tend to have more HR policies and procedures than employers in most other sectors. Rather than assisting, these procedures can sometimes tie institutions up in knots, make a process very protracted and cause significant delay. There can also be a tendency to hide behind a procedure rather than addressing the underlying issues.

In a climate in which it is often necessary to respond to change or opportunities speedily, HEIs should consider finding ways of being more fleet of foot, less risk averse and focused on the desired outcome rather than peripheral issues that can get in the way.

Finding Solutions

Whilst ensuring that strategic HR decisions and the processes adopted are legally robust, focusing on the end goal and having a clear timeline and framework as to how this can be achieved, will help with streamlining a process and perhaps assist in achieving the result the HEI wants in a shorter timescale.

At the start of any strategic HR project it is important to have a clear vision of what the institution wants to achieve, and why, and to anticipate what the likely blockers are to achieving the desired outcome. These blockers can range from lack of engagement of key stakeholders, to poor relations with recognised trades unions and from a culture that resists change to costs, both direct and indirect. Anticipating what the likely blockers will be will help in planning for how these can be overcome and ensure the timetable has adequate contingencies built in.

It is not possible to eliminate the possibility of unexpected problems during a project but keeping surprises to a minimum, and controlling the controllable, should help an HEI stick to its timeline and ensure that the project remains on track.

HEIs have traditionally been very risk-averse and this can delay the implementation of necessary changes. Whilst the risk of any course of action needs to be assessed, both from a financial and reputational point of view, it is impossible to eliminate risk altogether, so a balance needs to be struck between an institution’s operational needs and the level of risk it is prepared to accept.

Rather than being slaves to procedures, we would encourage institutions to find pragmatic and bold legal solutions which could well give them a competitive advantage.

For further information please contact Jane Byford in our Higher Education team on 0121 227 3712.


A version of this article originally appeared in University Business in August 2018.

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