Who’s who in HE: recruitment trends throughout the sector

Rebecca Paddick asks recruitment experts how HE can ensure it is appointing the right people?


  • Sam Samarasekera, Business Manager at Jefferson Frank
  • Sarah Shaw, Partner and Head of Education, Odgers Interim
  • Michael Hewlett, Director, The Management Recruitment Group
  • Richard Hewitt, Head of Practice, Education, Academic and Development, The Spencer Group

Q: In terms of recruitment is the HE sector more difficult than other sectors?  Why is this? What are the challenges?

Sam Samarasekera: I would say it’s the intensity of the competition. When you find the right fit for a position in HE, the likelihood that the position will open up again any time soon is minimal. That leads to a pool of permanent positions that is considerably smaller than that of all the great talent out there. Finding a candidate with the experience necessary to conquer a role can be a challenge because it can be quite difficult to find the vacancies required to give fresh talent that hands-on experience. To overcome such an issue, HR teams should be open to recruiting those new to the industry, but not before devising a clear strategy that will allow employees to develop and hone their skills. This, in turn, builds loyalty and contributes to great workplace culture.

Michael Hewlett: As each institution has different characteristics (strategic plans, teaching and research profile, organisation operating model, physical environment, location, approach to student experience, etc.) a specific approach bespoke to the individual needs of each institution is definitely required. We have seen briefs from university selection panels vary greatly (e.g. differences in view around searching for candidates inside versus outside of the sector), therefore as a search consultancy we have to apply tailored search strategies to meet the specific needs of each individual HEI and indeed the post they are appointing too. It is this diversity that we believe makes the sector so successful, but also very interesting and demanding from a search and recruitment perspective.

Richard Hewitt: The challenge with recruitment in HE is the breadth of skills, qualifications, experience and current activity that is required. Academic management need to be managing a devolved budget, or possibly full P&L, to generate a surplus; line manage and motivate independently minded, unionised faculty; carry academic weight in their respective fields; ensure regulatory compliance; and increasingly at the fore, ensuring their students are happy – both as paying customers and as individuals.  Not all academics are created equal and identifying which qualities can be supported elsewhere in a management structure allows compromises to be made, but Vice-Chancellors are keen to have management in place that are not only competent in all these areas, but are sector leading.

Q: How has recruiting for the HE sector changed in recent years? What are the key current trends?

Sam Samarasekera: There’s been a steady rise in the number of non-UK nationals being recruited in HE, particularly across engineering, languages, and the humanities in a wider sense. The outcome of any decisions taken in regard to Brexit could negatively affect these numbers.

Sarah Shaw: From an interim perspective, universities are following more of the substantive recruitment model; more interviews, an interview panel, sometime tours of the campus and informal sessions with the team who would report into them. Essentially, the interview process has become more thorough and intensive.

The challenge with recruitment in HE is the breadth of skills, qualifications, experience and current activity that is required

Michael Hewlett: The main change has been the shift towards creating a customer-focused environment since the implementation of tuition fees. This has seen a marked shift to attracting candidates from the private sector who are viewed as possessing the commercial skills required.

Q: Have universities responded well to sector changes in terms of recruitment? Or could they be doing more?

Sarah Shaw: The Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework that was introduced in 2017, and Office for Student that came into effect in April this year both had an impact on university human resourcing needs. The increased legislation has led to more roles within registry services that encompass student services – in the short term there’s been a pickup of interim placements in this area as universities look to meet new legislation demands quickly and effectively.

Michael Hewlett: The employment market place is hugely competitive and you have to engage with talent on so many platforms now amongst the deluge of daily information and you can no longer rely upon posting adverts in the national printed press. Yet for us, whilst the advertising mediums have evolved, you can never replace the human part of the recruitment process and assessing behaviours in addition to competencies.

The employment market place is hugely competitive

Richard Hewitt: Most universities we’re speaking to are keenly aware of the challenges the sector and their institutions are facing and are taking sometimes quite radical action. There are some which are being prevented from pushing for the reform that’s needed by internal politics and long-term appointments shoring up their positions. There is a lot of debt being carried in a number of institutions and those which are not recruiting to ensure their operations are run in a manner that doesn’t lose money will have to face the music sooner or later.

Q: Do you think a one-size-fits-all approach will work for all universities, or is a more holistic approach needed for each institution?

Sarah Shaw: Cross-departmental working is vital and it’s becoming increasingly important for university departments to operate as a single, joined-up unit instead of the traditional independent silos they’re used to. We’re also seeing universities running voluntary redundancy schemes and when staff accept these and leave, it’s created a vacuum in institutional memory which needs papering over in some way. For the most part, universities are turning to interim support to fill these gaps.

Michael Hewlett: There are many factors to consider when trying to attract the best-in-class candidates in the market, most importantly is that the recruiting institution needs to make the applicant feel that the role is an important part of their core business. This would give applying candidates the confidence that the recruiting institution understands the role, understands the candidate’s skills and moreover, is taking the recruitment process seriously.

Richard Hewitt: Every executive search assignment is a bespoke affair. While there are trends that are visible across the sector, the variables for each role are unique to each situation and the individual who works well for one institution, won’t necessarily work well for another.

Q: What tools are out there to ensure universities recruit the right people for them?

Sam Samarasekera: This might sound obvious, but nothing beats rolling up your sleeves and really looking into your institution’s strengths and weaknesses, budget allocations and plans for the future before getting into the recruitment process. Knowing where you are is the first step towards knowing where you need to be to succeed.

Every executive search assignment is a bespoke affair

Michael Hewlett: Recruitment of senior-level professional services staff in HE remains a challenge industry-wide, particularly sourcing and incentivising individuals currently operating outside of the HE sector. For universities to compete in attracting and retaining staff, universities should maximise their capability to attract professionals by offering clear career development and continued personal development programmes. The benefits offered by HEIs are compelling, and more should be made to publicise the working environment and staff benefits that an HEI can offer.

Richard Hewitt: The best resource can be the faculty themselves. If a certain academic expertise is needed, the faculty in that area should know who the movers and shakers are. Where people have come from other institutions, talk to them about their former colleagues.

Q: How will Brexit impact HE staff recruitment?

Sarah Shaw: It’s difficult to attract EU academics because they are so unsure of the future visa situation. This is leading to gaps that interims are filling. Just like EU students may feel ‘less welcome’ in the UK after Brexit – staff and future possible employees will feel the same. Why come to the UK when they are welcomed with open arms in – say – Germany?

Michael Hewlett: We have yet to see any Brexit-related impact. I think many are waiting for the political and economic settlement to be reached and then the impact can be assessed. At the moment it seems individuals are adopting a ‘wait and see’ approach.

Richard Hewitt: Although there is a lot of negativity in the sector surrounding Brexit, it is likely to present an exciting opportunity in terms of recruitment.  To recruit from outside the EU now is cumbersome and time-consuming to meet the visa sponsorship requirements. The UK is an attractive destination in the English-speaking world and there are many leading institutions in places like Australia, Canada and the US that could become far more accessible candidate pools once the EU bias is removed.

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