Attracting and retaining talented employees in higher education

How can higher education providers draw the best talent available and keep staff turnover down? Samantha Johnson offers some expert insight

How do you attract talent in higher education?

Building your employer brand is integral to attracting top talent in the market. This isn’t just about being top of the university league tables but about being seen as an attractive place to work.

Do you value your employees? What are your benefits like? Are there opportunities for progression? Are your salaries in line with the sector?

Don’t just use your job description to advertise a role, talk about your unique benefits and why your university is a great place to work. Whether it’s access to a gym, learning and development opportunities or subsidised lunches, these are great selling points to make your role stand out.

We live in an age where people can go online and review everything, and employers are no different. Use resources such as Glassdoor and encourage your employees to review your organisation to build up your employer profile. Social media is a powerful way to promote your organisation’s culture and the reasons why your employees love working there.

In the higher education sector, one out of three jobseekers are actively signed up to job boards. Not all are looking for a job and two out of three candidates might not even hear about your vacancy. Think about how you are going to attract these passive candidates.

Use a specialist recruitment agency with a strong network in the university sector with experience of researching universities and which has the ability to apply search techniques to approach the most suitable passive candidates in the market.

It is important to build a strong relationship with your recruitment partner, so they are representing your employer brand in the best way possible, understanding your vision, goals and values and providing a good-quality candidate experience.

What’s most important to candidates when looking for a new role?

A higher salary remains the number one motivator for candidates. You need to make sure your salaries are as competitive as possible, which means you need to know what similar organisations are offering. 

Salary is not the only thing to consider though, particularly for higher education candidates who are often looking for a better work-life balance. Make sure you mention benefits and opportunities for flexible working, as these are often really powerful draws. We have found more and more of our candidates are rating flexible/agile working or team culture as one of their main motivators for moving jobs over salary. 

Other reasons for moving jobs – in order of importance – were a more interesting role, a better commute, better culture and greater responsibility.

This isn’t just about being top of the university league tables, but about being seen as an attractive place to work

How do you manage the recruitment process?

Communication is key to keeping a candidate interested so be clear about the application process from the start. When is the closing date? When will you shortlist candidates? When will you interview and let candidates know the outcome? When do you need the candidate to start?

Make sure you stick to a time frame to avoid losing out on good candidates throughout the process. For the same reason, refrain from putting out job adverts for longer than three weeks. If your candidate is actively looking for a role it’s likely they will have another two to three roles on the go, and you don’t want to be beaten to the post.

Provide feedback, good or bad.

Let’s face it, most candidates have spent a lot of time putting together an application and undertaken in-depth interview preparation. It provides candidates with a positive experience if you can give them feedback on how their interview went, with clear constructive advice on how they can improve. They might not be right for this role but what about future opportunities? You want to encourage them to apply for other vacancies.

Don’t underestimate the value of good word of mouth. When candidates talk to friends and colleagues about their experience of interviewing at your institution you want it to be a positive one.

What are the challenges of recruiting in higher education?

Whether you are recruiting for a timetabling manager or a Hesa returns manager, there are a number of roles which are university-specific. That means you can only recruit from the same sector to get the skill set you need, which significantly narrows your pool of candidates.

Many HR professionals I meet tell me that equality and diversity are significant challenges in the sector, particularly at management and director level, and remains high on their agenda. Make sure you are advertising your roles widely and are using a variety of methods to source candidates. Blind recruiting methods such as removing personal details from applications ensure applications are reviewed based purely on skills and experience. It’s always a good idea to monitor your equality and diversity statistics to ensure your employees represent wider society and, of course, your student base.

The recruitment process for universities can be slow. Ensure your recruitment process is timely so you don’t lose out on candidates and ensure your candidates receive the best journey throughout the process with consistent communication so when they are offered it, they want to accept the role.

What are your top tips for retaining staff within the sector?

It’s now increasingly evident that flexible working  is one of the key ways in which universities can compete to recruit the best talent. Our salary survey has shown that, for the third year running, flexible working is the benefit most valued by jobseekers and we’ve seen an increase in the number of candidates we interview who are happy to accept lower pay offers in exchange for more flexible working options. Offering different flexible working options can help retain staff within your organisation.

There are many different ways in which flexible working could work, depending on the individual motivations of your employees. Flexitime, or the ability to vary start and finish times around core working hours, is highly popular among employees at all life stages.

Create and promote a culture for inclusion. Having a diverse workforce requires an inclusive culture and if this is lacking, staff may begin to seek out other opportunities. Research shows that organisations with an inclusive environment are more creative and innovative, with higher levels of employee trust and retention.

A recent study conducted by Instructure has shown that 44% of UK employees feel their employer does not value development enough to ensure that they are performing well. Seventy per cent of the survey respondents said that learning opportunities would affect their decision to take a job and 98% claimed those opportunities are key to deciding whether to stay with an employer or not. Clearly, personal development is something that is highly valued by the current workforce and ensuring access to opportunities for development is a great way for universities to retain their staff too.


Samantha Johnson is divisional manager for TPP Recruitment: www.tpp.co.uk