HR in HE: ‘We need to be careful we don’t create a problem that doesn’t exist’

Higher education human resource professionals gather for the Universities Human Resources virtual conference

The chair of Universities Human Resources (UHR) has called on the university sector to be mindful of how higher education is perceived by the general public.

University Business interviewed UHR chair Joanne Marshall as the professional organisation prepares for its virtual annual conference UHR21: Refreshing HR, which begins today.

Marshall, who is also director of people and campus services at the University of Bradford, said UHR members had “adapted very, very quickly, in a short period of time to support the needs of higher education” during the pandemic.

She added that the switch to “hybrid” or “agile” working, in a sector traditionally uncomfortable with the idea, and the new use of technology, were both silver linings her profession would take from the period.

Another positive change, Marshall said, was that mental health and wellbeing had “moved up the pecking order quite rapidly. How we support our staff and how we do things differently, has definitely been accelerated. People are openly feeling they can raise issues with managers, to say, ‘Actually, I’m really struggling with this’.”

A good HR leader in higher education, she said, required a “very common sense, practical approach. And oodles of patience.”

I think we have to be very careful about how HE is perceived. HE’s had quite a lot of bad press over the last few years. And I think we do need to be careful that we don’t create a problem that doesn’t exist – Joanne Marshall, UHR

Asked about current disputes between providers and trade union UCU, Marshall said that her members “have good working relationships with our local representatives.

“I’m just not sure how much they [UCU] are listening to their own membership. What we hear from our local reps is they want to work with us. They want our universities to succeed, they don’t want to see them fail. I’m not sure that, necessarily, is the message that sometimes comes out from the centre.

“I think we have to be very careful about how HE is perceived. HE’s had quite a lot of bad press over the last few years. And I think we do need to be careful that we don’t create a problem that doesn’t exist.”

Running from 10-14 May, UHR21: Refreshing HR will cover some of the major issues that university HR teams are dealing with at the moment, including executive search, staff on student sexual misconduct, gender equity, mental wellbeing and dispute resolution, and the last day will be given over to regional meetings.

This year’s virtual conference, Marshall hopes, “will give us a boost. It’s been a very difficult year for everybody.

“It’s a space where we can get some new insights, hear about fresh approaches, and difficult challenges, but also time to think. For the last 18 months, we’ve focused on the crisis. So we want this to now be an opportunity where we can lift our heads up and look to the future and what that might offer, and a place to really refresh and re energise.”

Marshall’s message to her members’ employers? “You can’t underestimate the value of your people.

“Ensuring that you’ve got the right levels of support, and the right infrastructure to do that, is critical for the future. This is a real opportunity for HE to be different. Keep supporting each other and supporting students in the future.”


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