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New recruits - how can HE source top talent?

Keri Beckingham looks at the ways universities manage recruitment processes to ensure staff deliver the best student experience

Posted by Rebecca Paddick | February 14, 2017 | Finance, legal, HR

Within the competitive HE sector, universities must work harder than ever to attract the next cohort of students – however, this is not the only recruitment challenge that they face today. With tuition fees now at the highest level they have ever been, universities need to recruit the best talent in order to offer a top class educational experience to students – so how do universities find this talent (from teaching staff to Vice-Chancellors) to ensure they can deliver what they promise? 

Attracting the right candidates

According to Paul Collins, Technical Services Manager at Hireserve, a company that provides educational recruitment software, attracting staff with the correct skills is important. He comments: “A compelling attraction strategy is needed, particularly for very niche or senior roles. Many universities will use traditional recruitment advertising platforms such as Times Higher Education, or industry jobs boards such as For hard-to-fill roles, taking a more bespoke approach might be needed to ensure relevant candidates with the right skills are reached.”

Whilst teaching is an enjoyable part of an academic’s role, there is of course the need to protect research activities which has anecdotally increased demand at a junior level, in order to increase the capacity for student support    

In order to allow for candidates with the correct skills and experience to be easily identified, the need for universities to have a robust screening process in place is essential when it comes to managing high volumes of applications. Commenting further, Paul Collins said: “Using applicant tracking technology will allow university recruitment teams to establish screening practices tailored to their organisation, and to specific roles. For example, a series of job-specific questions could be set for a particular academic position, which would capture essential information at an early stage of the process.”

Adding to this, Lukas Vanterpool, Director at recruitment agency The Sterling Choice, said ensuring that applicants have a good understanding of the industry they are lecturing about is key when it comes to reviewing applications. He commented: “Obviously, the teaching is an integral part of HE, but there needs to be a focus on what is beyond that. It’s important that staff understand the industries in which they teach, as many of them are so fast paced. ”

Evolving recruitment requirements

In recent years, universities’ recruitment requirements have certainly changed. As Paul Collins confirmed: “Since the recession, we understand that many universities (along with many public sector organisations) have been making steps to scale back and streamline processes. As part of this, some jobs have been at risk – but what we’ve seen is many universities making a big effort to help employees facing redundancy find employment elsewhere internally.”

Elizabeth James is a Principal Consultant at Berwick Partners, specialists in the recruitment of senior management and leadership positions across the public and private sector. She is an academic appointment specialist with particular experience of supporting universities, and some of her clients include De Montfort University and the University of East Anglia.  Commenting on her experience of universities changing their recruitment requirements, she said: “Student numbers have increased in most institutions and this demands efficiency in teaching methods.  Concerns have been raised over resources, staff wellbeing, teaching time vs research work and the overall delivery of the academic product. This presents opportunities for relevant talent to share their own unique teaching solutions that can deliver top results within the same timeframe.”

Increasing recruitment drives

With the cap on student numbers now being lifted, universities are turning to advances in technology to assist them with their increasing recruitment drives. Speaking about Hireserve’s experience, Paul Collins said: “From our perspective, we’re seeing universities becoming more innovative in their candidate engagement and attraction activities.  Investing in applicant tracking technology is one way to offer a more professional, streamlined process for candidates and recruitment teams.”

Elizabeth James believes that there are opportunities for universities who want to keep up with the increase in student demand, but warns they must also keep the potential pitfalls in mind. She said: “Some institutions have lowered their tariff points and are subsequently attracting a student cohort with different learning demands to those which they may have recruited in the past.  The upshot is that they require academics to provide a different learning experience to a more academically diverse range of groups, and some may require more contact time which of course has a knock-on effect upon resources. 

“Whilst teaching is an enjoyable part of an academic’s role, there is of course the need to protect research activities which has anecdotally increased demand at a junior level, in order to increase the capacity for student support.”

University recruitment in practice

With everything considered, what do the universities themselves think about the changes in HE recruitment to date? Speaking at Regent University London’s recent ‘International Partners’ Conference 2017,’ Sue Shutter, Regent’s Pro Vice Chancellor and Director of Human Resources, called for a greater emphasis on soft skills in professional staff and graduates.  She said: “I think universities have a responsibility to develop skills and behaviours so that their staff and graduates can work effectively in teams, make decisions and solve problems.”

In addition to this, Sue believes that offering employees an attractive rewards package is important for retention. Commenting further, she said: “At Regent’s we not only recognise performance for meeting objectives and targets, but also reward staff for how they work as part of a team.”

In terms of universities who have recently completed recruitment drives, The University of Westminster are a good example, recently appointing nine new professors across all faculties.

Learning and teaching is an exciting space to work in as it is underpinned by the changing needs of our students and our global environment    

Professor Terry Lamb, newly appointed Professor of Languages and Interdisciplinary Pedagogy, will lead on enhancing the student learning experience. Speaking about his appointment, Professor Lamb said: “I’m looking forward to being in such a diverse environment and working with colleagues to explore new pedagogies that enable our students to develop the competencies of autonomy, responsibility, critical thinking and research as well as nurturing their understanding of the vital importance of engagement between university and the wider world.

“Learning and teaching is an exciting space to work in as it is underpinned by the changing needs of our students and our global environment.”

Commenting on the appointments, Westminster’s Vice-Chancellor and President, Professor Geoffrey Petts said: “We are very proud to be welcoming nine new senior academics to the University of Westminster this year. We are equally excited about what our new professors will bring to our university community, through their innovative research, but also through their expertise and knowledge, which we believe will enhance our student’s learning environment and experience as they are taught and influenced by some of the leading figures in their academic fields.”

Forward thinking

Moving forward, what do our experts think are the best ways for universities to recruit top talent? First and foremost, Paul Collins believes they need to be clear on their core differentiators.  He said: “Whatever it is, universities need to use it as a base to build a compelling employer brand, engaging careers site and effective candidate experience – so as to attract and engage the skilled teaching talent they need.”

Elizabeth James, meanwhile, believes executive search should be considered: “Executive search is a product used increasingly at professorial, reader and senior lecturer levels to great effect.  Competitive terms and conditions still matter, but the scope to make a proactive approach to potential employees, often globally, is an opportunity that more and more institutions are keen not to pass over.”    

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