Roundtable: Recruiting the best

How are universities striving to attract the best and most diverse staff? Steve Wright asks our panel of experts

The panel

Malcolm Paice, Managing director, Keystone Employment Group

Alison Thorne-Henderson, Executive director of human resources, University of Portsmouth

Ian Thompson FCIPD, Director of human relations, Arden University

Sarah Setchell, Director of human resources, University of Derby

Samantha Johnston, Divisional manager: education and training, TPP Recruitment


Q. When it comes to attracting the best staff, are there any failsafe techniques?

Malcolm Paice: In higher education, as in so many sectors, it is really important to know your institution’s USPs, and why people might want to work there rather than somewhere else. It’s key that the story of the institution, and the candidate’s place in it, is clear and consistent, from job description through to interview. It’s no use stating that a role has great promotion and development prospects if the interviewing panel doesn’t then know what those prospects might be.

In HE, job descriptions and person specifications are usually pretty clear, so it becomes more about selling the specific benefits of each institution, and what it has to offer – in terms of prospects, facilities and its position in the sector.

Alison Thorne-Henderson: There’s no magic bullet – 

I wish there was one! We can’t ever become complacent about the recruitment process. It’s the first thing you encounter as a potential employee, and if it’s done poorly, we risk not attracting the best candidates. 

Portsmouth is a modern, agile and vibrant university with an ambitious new strategy, and we are working on our HR processes to reflect that, by maximising technology to improve the candidate experience.

Ian Thompson: I think it’s important that recruitment reflects the values and identity of the institution. As a new, small teaching-centred university with a focus on flexible face-to-face and online learning, we offer alternatives to the traditional university; for similar reasons, we have to work harder than long-established names to attract candidates.

For example, we focus on delivering a recruitment experience that reflects our values of supportiveness, integrity, innovation and ownership, together with our pride in supporting students to realise their potential. We are an established local employer in Coventry, while also building a presence in London, Birmingham, Manchester and Berlin. 

Sarah Setchell: Our values-led approach is certainly key to attracting staff, as is our growing number of academic accreditations and rankings in the sector. Therefore, a good failsafe is to ensure that you are promoting these aspects during the recruitment process.

Samantha Johnston: Building your employer brand is integral to attracting top talent. This isn’t just about being top of the university league tables, but also about being seen as an attractive place to work. Talk about your unique benefits and why your university is a great place to work. Gym access, learning and development opportunities, subsidised lunches: all can make your role stand out.

Everything can now be reviewed online, and employers are no different. Make sure you are using 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 – and to illustrate why your employees love working there.

In the HE sector, one out of three jobseekers are actively signed up to job boards. Of those, 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, able 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, who should represent your brand in the best way possible – understanding your vision, goals and values and ensuring a high-quality candidate experience.

Our recent salary survey found that a higher salary remains the number one motivator for candidates. Ensure that your salaries are as competitive as possible. After that, HE candidates are often looking for a better work-life balance. Make sure you mention benefits and opportunities for flexible working, as these are often powerful draws. 

We are working with trade unions to review part-time, hourly-paid contracts to ensure they meet the requirements of a modern university and provide attractive opportunities for candidates – Alison Thorne-Henderson

Q. How much legislation and bureaucracy must employers go through when hiring? Do you feel that this level of checks is appropriate?

MP: Of course, all across the education sector there are the relevant checks of qualifications, practical experience references, DBS and so forth. I’d say they are pretty appropriate for the sector. Those who work in the sector understand that it’s a necessary process, and professionals rarely complain about institutions checking that an application is bona fide. There is almost certainly more to be done to centralise and simplify how this information is accessed to save time – but that will come.

ATH: There is a balance of risk in employing anyone, so checks will always be essential. Checks also ensure that the university remains within the law and that we maintain our Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) ‘gold’ status. Technology makes bureaucracy simpler than it once was. The Home Office’s Disclosure and Barring Service can be accessed online, and people’s backgrounds can often be verified through social media.

SS: There are significant compliance requirements when hiring within HE. We must ensure that we meet our statutory compliance, for obvious reasons. We also work hard to align our practice with guidance from the Universities & Colleges Employers Association (UCEA), to deliver best practice within the sector. Although compliance is robust within the sector, this level feels appropriate given the nature of the industry and the responsibility to deliver excellence for our students. 

SJ: Here at TPP we are audited by the Recruitment and Employment Confederation (REC), so our employment checks are of the highest standard. Employment checks are important to ensure that the candidate has the right to work in the UK and that their CV is accurate. Best practice would also be to obtain references from previous employers – not only to check employment dates, but also to ask specific questions relating to their performance.

Recruitment businesses and agencies have to comply with the Conduct of Employment Agencies and Employment Businesses Regulations 2003, which ensures that they have confirmed the identity of a work-seeker, checked that they have the experience, training and/or qualifications necessary to do the job and are willing to work in the relevant position. Employers obviously have certain responsibilities (such as checking that they’re not discriminating against someone in their hiring processes), but they don’t have an equivalent to these Conduct Regulations.

Q. Has the HE recruitment landscape changed radically over the past decade or so? 

MP: People are more mobile now than they were 10 years ago and more prepared to try new challenges, move to different institutions and have a more varied career. Ten years ago, people were more inclined to stay put for longer in roles they saw as secure. Now, an increased demand for experienced staff, especially proven academic staff and demand, along with personal ambition, results in more mobility in the sector. The changes in funding in HE have also been a factor and the landscape is more commercially competitive than a decade ago.

IT: While the legal landscape has changed, the overall impact is similar. Inclusion is a more conscious goal. With our distance-learning focus, technology increasingly helps academic staff work remotely. More HE institutions are now challenged to stand out in a larger crowd, but this has also created a larger pool of potential recruits. 

SS: The focus has broadened out in terms of the skills required of academics. We need individuals who are both academically qualified and able to adapt and change, to drive innovation and commercial income. Student fees have changed the dynamics and the expectations of the service they receive at university is greatly affected. Non-red-brick universities are trying to balance the need for research credibility with the delivery of more vocational qualifications – increased with the introduction of the HE apprenticeship routes in, for example, nursing.

Recruitment practices should be two-way and values-driven, reflecting the diversity of staff in the recruitment adverts and throughout the hiring process – Ian Thompson

Q. And have temporary/fixed-term contracts altered the landscape?

MP: Without a doubt. Given the more fluid and mobile environment, there are more institutions using contingent workers, as things can change throughout an academic year. Also, with more workers wanting flexibility and agility in their working lives, this suits those trying to balance life and work more evenly. 

As a result, we’ve seen more people enjoying more varied roles, and gaining wider experience than before.

ATH: Recruitment across all sectors has moved on a great deal in the past decade, and we are moving with it. We are working with trade unions to review part-time, hourly-paid contracts to ensure they meet the requirements of a modern university and provide attractive opportunities for candidates.

SS: The sector has always had a strong reliance on temporary and fixed-term contracts, due to the flexible nature of demand. As a result, the HE landscape hasn’t altered as significantly as other sectors.

Q. How successful are HE institutions at incorporating diversity into their hiring practice?

MP: I think HE is one of the most successful sectors in embracing diversity, and I believe that most institutions are adopting a ‘talent first’ approach without prejudice on race, gender or age. As the cohort of students has become more diverse, institutions’ staffing policy has kept up. The difficulty is in attracting a wider cross-section of society into academia in the first place.

ATH: Universities by their nature are diverse, and diversity is essential if we are to create innovation and learning, two of the pillars of higher education.

We still have work to do. We want to think radically and our workforce to truly reflect the diversity in our student population and in our city. We have to think beyond traditional areas of diversity and, for example, ensure that our hiring practices attract neurodiverse candidates. 

IT: Recruitment practices should be two-way and values-driven, reflecting the diversity of staff in the recruitment adverts and throughout the hiring process. In our experience, it is important to build, rather than move towards, a diverse workforce.

It’s also helpful to improve benefits, including childcare and flexible working, as well as showing a commitment to maintaining an inclusive, supportive and open culture as we grow. 

SS: As an institution, we are conscious of best practice, both from a legal perspective and in terms of our community responsibility.

Inclusivity is a key consideration to ensure that we are attracting the best candidates, regardless of their personal characteristics. We also focus on the impact that this has on our students: the impact of diversity and student-body representation on student attainment is a key priority.

Of the 19,000 professors in the UK only 115 are black and only 25 are black women – Malcolm Paice

Q. And what strategies are universities using to become more diverse?

MP: We have seen a growth in universities guaranteeing interviews to candidates from specific underrepresented groups, but in the main they simply have a robust equal-opportunities policy. We have never yet found an institution seeking to do anything other than find the right talent – irrespective of background. 

Leadership on diversity has improved in the sector as more vice-chancellors acknowledge that, with an increasingly diverse student cohort, the latter’s outcomes are better served by having suitably diverse faculty staff.

ATH: There are many ways of approaching diversity. We have Athena Swan accreditation and have been awarded the Race Charter. We are looking for academic role models in the underrepresented communities we serve. There’s more to be done, and it’s our responsibility to understand what barriers are stopping diversity – and to change our processes accordingly. 

SJ: At TPP, we spend a lot of time talking to universities about their equality and diversity policies. Our top tips on incorporating diversity into your hiring practices include:

Ensure that university boards are representative

A diverse board is a great starting point for ensuring that your university has a diverse workforce. Research by the Employers’ Network for Equality and Inclusion (ENEI) has shown that inclusivity needs to be fostered from the top down.

Advertise your roles widely

To recruit a diverse workforce, it’s important to advertise roles on a variety of job boards. Work with an agency that uses a variety of methods to source candidates. 

Blind recruiting

Remove personal information from applications (including name, gender, nationality and alma mater) to eliminate unconscious bias during the recruitment process. Applications are thus reviewed purely on the basis of skillset and experience. Ucas currently uses name-blind applications, and this practice is becoming increasingly widespread in the sector.

Have a diverse interview panel

Interviewing is very subjective and hirers tend to hire candidates in their own image.

Interview fairly

Use a point-scoring system to ensure that the best candidate gets the job. 

Review your gender pay gap

… and take action wherever possible, to ensure that men and women are paid equally for identical roles.

The senior board members and vice-chancellors across the UK aren’t as diverse as they could be. For diversity to be truly embedded in an organisation, it needs to come from the top down – Samantha Johnston

Q. How diverse is the HE workforce in comparison to other sectors?

MP: Well, for academic staff there is still a long way to go – for example, of the 19,000 professors in the UK, only 115 are black and only 25 are black women. Clearly, that is not something that will change overnight but, for the most part, institutions we have worked with are taking the matter seriously and trying to understand and remove barriers and perceived barriers for entry into academia. Among the non-academic workforce, the diversity of staffing is far better.

ATH: Knowledge-seeking seeks no bias and universities are fortunate. Our population of 30,000 staff and students comes from all over the world and is constantly changing, creating resilience to change and diversity that can be rare in other sectors. Having said that, there’s always more we can do.

SS: The UCEA HE Workforce Report 2019 reveals that the sector faces several diversity challenges, particularly in regard to representation of women and ethnic minorities in senior roles. For example, 22% of early stage academic staff are from ethnic minority backgrounds, compared to 7% for departmental and faculty head positions.

Improving ethnic diversity within the workforce is noted as a topic of discussion with several institutions, particularly around representation of local communities and the student body.

SJ: Like other sectors, HE tends to be more diverse up to middle/senior management. The senior board members and vice-chancellors across the UK aren’t as diverse as they could be. For diversity to be truly embedded in an organisation, it needs to come from the top down. Diversity isn’t just something that needs to be embedded in the recruitment process: institutions must also analyse how inclusive their workplace truly is to avoid losing good talent.

Q. What digital tools/channels are most effective for recruiting staff?

MP: In 2019 alone we have seen use of our Talent Bank solution among universities increase by over 40%, as more and more institutions want to take recruitment back ‘in-house’ and reduce their reliance on third parties. That simply mirrors what the rest of the world is doing: moving to more agile and lower-cost online services and using software-as-a-service tools to make light work of finding talent. 

The big increase is among contingent workers, with temporary role volumes having increased year-on-year for the past five years. Services such as Times Higher Education’s THEunijobs are still popular for permanent roles but will need to evolve to keep up with the demands of the sector and modern technology.

ATH: It depends on the role. LinkedIn is good for attracting hard-to-find candidates; video is useful in ‘meeting’ international candidates. We try and make sure we are matching the role to the right digital channel: there is no one-size-fits-all.

SS: At present, social media platforms, such as LinkedIn, are proving to be the most effective method of resourcing a wide pool of candidates, in a cost-effective manner. Search engine and website optimisation is also a key tool to ensure that vacancies are easily found, with mobile phone/tablet-supported application processes to follow. In addition, generic or industry-specific job sites, such as’s Find a Job or, often help drive more volume of relevant applications.

SJ: LinkedIn remains the number one tool for recruiting staff, as it allows for proactive headhunting of passive candidates who are not actively searching on job boards or university job pages. The more visual and creative the adverts, the more hits they get. Our video advertisements do very well in promoting roles and getting good quality responses. Utilise social media channels such as Facebook and Twitter to advertise roles and promote your university as an excellent place to work. 

Q. How has/will Brexit affect HE employment?

MP: In a word, it is about uncertainty. 

We are yet to find a university that is gravely pre-occupied about the impact of Brexit – but they do want to know the how and when of it all. Early on there was something of a ‘freeze’ but, in the three years that have trundled by since, institutions have realised that they must keep calm and carry on. 

The uncertain landscape means that temporary and contract roles have increased, as institutions look to remain agile and flexible depending on what happens – and that will continue for the next couple of years, as the actuality of it all unfolds.

The big question will be around the overseas workforce and, of course, overseas student numbers. For the most part, EU student and staff numbers ought not to be too badly dented, but if equally good prospects are on offer elsewhere within the EU with no visa complications, that may just clinch the decision-making process for some. 

Again, it comes down to certainty and clarity of message. If people do not understand the timetable for change and precisely what the UK Visas and Immigration rules are, it is almost certain to have a negative impact. If the government is clear on EU citizens’ right to work and study rules going forward, and offers a frictionless policy, then the universities will reciprocate and ensure that they do all they can to sustain the UK’s pre-eminence for educational excellence. 

ATH: Over the past decade, recruitment pools became increasingly diverse, especially from Europe, and this is now at risk. Fewer candidates applying from Europe is likely to make it necessary to think long and hard about new ways of reaching international candidates.

SS: The University of Derby is an international employer with staff from over 65 countries around the world who contribute to the success of our teaching, research and professional services.

Currently, we are maintaining a steady recruitment from the EU. However, Brexit may impact our ability to recruit EU citizens from prestigious HE institutions. International collaborations with EU partner institutions are essential to research and innovation on major global and societal issues.

The direct recruitment impact following Brexit is very difficult to predict. Areas for concern are around our ability to easily attract skilled EU citizens to senior teaching and research positions. Furthermore, our recruitment may be affected financially by potentially increasing costs with the inclusion of EU citizens in the new immigration system.

SJ: Brexit has been at the heart of conversations within the sector, with academics, professional staff, politicians, and vice-chancellors all concerned over the future of our prestigious education system. When most of our funding for university research comes from the EU, what does this mean for the future of our research funding? 

Early indications suggest the number of prospective EU students choosing to study in the UK might fall because of Brexit – a loss that could cost the UK economy more than £690m per year. Applications from across the European Union have already dropped for many universities. Large numbers of academics have expressed concerns over job conditions post-Brexit, with dozens of EU academics already rejecting job posts in the UK. 

We have had a mixture of responses, with some universities noting a significant drop in student applications and others stating their student applications have continued to increase. It’s important for universities to continue to diversify and compete to attract the best students. The market for international students is competitive and the UK is currently the second most popular destination behind the US – and home to five of the top 25 universities in the world. 

The British education system is one of our most valuable assets and contributes significantly to the UK economy. Whatever happens with Brexit, one thing is certain: politicians must ensure that higher education is high on their agenda!


Keystone Employment Group

TPP Recruitment

Useful links

Glassdoor job search 

TPP Salary, Rewards and Retention Survey 2019

ENEI: What is inclusive leadership?

UCEA HE Workforce Report 2019

Times Higher Education: THEunijobs

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