The UK education sector has changed dramatically in recent years. The demands and challenges on schools, colleges and universities have increased, placing more pressure onto HR personnel.
Students as customers
Education institutions currently face having to represent a hybrid model – perceived as having both an important public duty to carry out but also obligations to students as consumers.
This is especially true in the university sector. As the fees of attending university have increased dramatically, students expect a higher level of service and now think of themselves as customers. Institutions need to think of them this way too. This means the relationship between student experience and academic performance and pay is being talked about now more than ever.
Adjusting to the role of seeing and treating students like customers is extremely challenging for HR. The need is to get academics to see themselves in customer service roles and 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.
With this quest for a much more customer-centric approach and greater focus on staff performance, HR could be complicit in creating other issues.
Unlike the commercial sector, it is a lot more difficult for educators to measure their success. Education institutions have always faced metrics in the form of league tables and reports, but these largely measure team performance, rather than individual staff performance.
But now, with increased pressure on academics to deliver in more measurable ways, this can risk placing undue pressure on employees for example to publish more and more frequently, resulting in questionable tactics such as a perceived rise in data slicing and citation circles, and creating concerns around personnel wellbeing.
HR needs to lead a pushback against such activity and also potentially rethink the use of metrics and their impact on staff engagement and welfare.
VC pay debate
In HE, this new customer-centric direction is also behind greatly-intensified scrutiny on the disparity between vice chancellor (VC) and frontline staff pay. This is also in line with increased focus on executive pay and corporate governance at private firms.
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. Staff pay in HE has fallen in real terms. The austerity imposed on the many has been in stark contrast to above-inflation pay increases for VCs, with expense claim scandals and grace-and-favour houses also a source of criticism and embarassment for the sector.
The danger is allowing academic personnel – ie the people who students have a primary relationship with – to feel disenfranchised and disrespected.
University HR professionals also shouldn’t assume 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 their passion for their subject and job.
There’s a lack of understanding around the complexity of the VC role. It is multiple roles; 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. 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.
The code does however present a pressing issue in terms of the potentially increased administrative burden for HR, and even greater scrutiny on senior pay, not just that of VCs.
Staff retention & reward
The education sector faces a lot of challenges today in attracting and retaining all levels of talent, with long working hours and low pay cited as two of the major reasons teachers decide to leave the profession.
High staff turnover is not only disruptive and damaging to reputation, it also costs schools, colleges and universities a lot of money. The cost of hiring and training new staff can be extremely expensive.
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. It is a problem HR hasn’t historically had to worry about since majority of staff pay has been determined by sector-level negotiations between trade unions and the employer body. Reward strategies haven’t been discussed or developed.
HR needs to be at the table when remuneration is discussed, reminding the organisation that this is a people business.
Casual worker rights
HEIs have long employed certain workers on casual contracts, from seasonal staff to visiting lecturers, and as a result, are now being pulled into wider debates around worker exploitation.
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 against the casualisation of contracts. But 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 and provision of opportunities for PhD students.
Pressure is mounting on HR university leaders to rethink how their staff are employed. But this negative picture may not truly reflect the situation. For example, 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, and casual contracts are typically used for visiting lecturers who can be practising professionals such as journalists or barristers employed on an hourly rate.
This makes the issue of casualisation of HE labour less straight forward. The challenge for HR to stand firm against negative gig economy pressure and retain employment arrangements they believe work well for both parties.
DavidsonMorris are established advisers to the education sector. As employer solutions lawyers, we work with education providers and institutions to support with their full people requirements including human resource consultancy, immigration & employment legal advice and global mobility expertise.
We understand the commercial and legal challenges facing businesses in the sector, and work to support our clients in meeting their people management and planning needs while reducing legal risk exposure. Contact our education sector specialists today.
Last updated: 2nd January 2020