Finding bold solutions to HR Issues

In a climate of unprecedented change and increased competition, universities need to find pragmatic solutions to HR issues, says Jane Byford

In this article, Jane Byford, Employment Partner at VWV, looks at some of the strategic HR challenges facing the sector and how desired outcomes may be achieved effectively in shorter timescales by approaching issues in a more streamlined way, whilst still being legally robust. This follows a legal session delivered at the Universities HR annual conference 2018.

External challenges

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

  • The Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) has put the spotlight firmly on teaching performance. HEIs need to ensure that 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 recent industrial action on the proposed changes to the USS, 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 (REF) mean that in 2021 all academics with significant responsibility for research will need to be submitted for the 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 that 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 employment tribunal claims, which are typically complex, multi-faceted, time-consuming and costly to defend.

Internal challenges

At the same time as dealing with these external challenges, HR professionals are facing internal challenges, such as:

  • Many HEIs are embarking on transformation and organisational change projects to ensure that their structure fits with the changing environment, and that 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 a move 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. The median average gap across the HE sector was 16.5% against an average of 9.7% across all sectors, and 30 HEIs reported gender pay gaps in excess of 20%. 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.  Indeed, it is not unheard of for a new policy to be drafted when a situation arises that is not covered by a policy already.

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.

It is not possible to eliminate the possibility of unexpected problems

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 that 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, 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. For example, in a collective redundancy situation, if an HEI does not consult with recognised trades unions this could result in a protective award of up to 90 days’ pay per employee which could be a very significant sum. On the other hand if an HEI is just facing the slight possibility of a procedurally unfair dismissal claim from one employee it may be prepared to take that risk.

In conclusion, rather than being a slave to procedures, I would encourage institutions to find pragmatic and bold legal solutions which could well give them a competitive advantage.

To be kept up to date on legal, regulatory and governance issues, please register for VWV’s dedicated HE portal OnStream at

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