HR ‘must resist management by algorithm’ in universities sector

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The introduction of a customer-centric culture across the higher education sector has brought a unique set of challenges for university HR teams, management expert and entrepreneur Margaret Heffernan told the Universities HR Conference yesterday.

With more than 300 HR and L&D professionals from across the sector gathered in Bristol at a time when disputes over pensions and vice chancellor pay have increased workloads and raised tensions, Heffernan – author of Wilful Blindness – said it was vital to keep a focus on the right sort of performance management measures.

Tuition fees, introduced in 1998, had gradually brought a greater customer focus to universities that should be welcomed, said Heffernan. But increased competition could drive the wrong sort of behaviours if it was not managed properly.

“Since schools have become more competitive, we have seen kids cheat more and teachers cheat more… we are seeing a stress epidemic among families,” she said. “The same has now happened for university students, and we’ve become more concerned about their stress too. And academics now feel a huge competitive pressure.”

That can drive the wrong sort of behaviours, she added – encouraging academics to chase citations and ratings rather than genuine academic outcomes. HR had an important role to play in alleviating these pressures, and it could start by resisting the introduction of performance-related pay in the sector: “There is no evidence that performance-related pay enhances performance. It allocates enormous resources to a small problem – dealing with underperformance, which is maybe 5-10 per cent [of the workforce]. The real issue is how you make everyone else better.”

Heffernan advocated creating warmer and more collaborative cultures, breaking down siloes that exist between departments and disciplines through social interaction and encouraging more inspirational management practices.

It was a theme picked up by Moira Clark, professor of strategic marketing at Henley Business School, who said the higher education sector – in common with others – may have been chasing the concept of employee engagement to the detriment of wider measures that could drive better performance.

She preferred a ‘service climate’ where process, policy, practice and reward all combine to empower frontline staff. In particular, she said, universities should get smarter at recruitment: “We try to boil it all down to one hour – but it’s about personal fit and, if we want to create more cohesive cultures, we have to look more at that.”

Meanwhile, delegates also heard that the customer-centric culture had not necessarily led to across-the-board increases in pay for the sector. In fact, a presentation by Korn Ferry Hay Group suggested that while between 2006 and 2009 higher education pay rose 3 per cent faster than the UK workforce as a whole, since 2010 it had been 8 per cent behind the market.

In particular, while there was a widening difference in pay between different academic disciplines, professors in research-led universities had seen their median pay increase by just 7 per cent over five years.

Peter Smith, senior client partner at Korn Ferry Hay Group, highlighted the forthcoming remuneration code from the Committee of University Chairs, which would mean the pay of executive teams had to be disclosed and would increase the responsibilities of remuneration committees. At the same time, the Office for Students may from 2019 require total remuneration and job titles for all individuals earning base pay of £150,000 or more to be made publicly available.

This was a huge challenge, said Smith, and it was possible that legal challenges may mean the rules would require further revision. “The regulators will have to talk to each other, because it’s still not clear what will have to be disclosed,” he said. “That’s a shame for HR departments because it’s something they really need to know.”

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