HE’s got talent: managing the sector’s workforce

Helen Fairfoul
The challenge of sustaining an effective and flexible workforce will be covered by Professor Sir Ian Diamond in his review of efficiency in higher education. Ahead of the launch of Sir Ian’s report, Helen Fairfoul of the Universities and Colleges Employers Association (UCEA) looks at how universities are approaching talent management.

There are certain themes that have framed discussion and action around pay and reward in the higher education sector over the the past five years or so.

One of these is rising staff costs in a context of public funding restraint and another, the move to a competitive student funding system that has called for more entrepreneurial and market-responsive behaviours. In this context, the intensely competitive global environment for HE means that attracting and retaining top talent poses a critical challenge for institutions throughout the sector.  

Common themes

Each institution has its own priorities and approaches in considering organisational development but we have seen some common themes. Terms such as enabling performance, talent management, rewarding contribution and succession planning have moved up institutional agendas and now commonly feature in their plans. Senior leaders within the sector increasingly question the effectiveness of their pay and reward systems in enhancing performance and developing talent from within.  

The 2013 UCEA/HEFCE HE Workforce survey showed talent management to be a new area of particular interest for HEIs. Talent management is an annoying piece of management-speak for some, but the kind of initiatives being described include the following:

  • Retaining and developing good people – a strategy already implemented or being considered by 80% of the respondents,
  • Developing existing people to take on broader work and responsibility – being implemented or considered by 67%
  • Investing more in the quality of recruitment – being implemented or considered by 59%.

To give a flavour of the kind of activity, we have been gathering example case studies. Nottingham Trent University is working to “better understand, develop and utilise the talent that already exists within the organisation by making succession planning and the development of potential a core business process”.

 Succession management

Newcastle University has been formalising its “management of succession to leadership roles… [so] that there is a more effective ‘talent pool’ to meet future needs”.

Imperial College London uses a talent development strategy as a framework and mechanism for investment in staff and the building of a culture of learning and high performance. There are numerous similar initiatives being developed across the sector.

We are also seeing the refinement of performance review schemes, with individual objectives more clearly aligned with those of the department or school and of the institution. There is a sharper focus on process to ensure that review involves the setting of SMART objectives (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time limited) and career planning.

Examples include Swansea University’s Performance Enabling Programme that was recognised in the 2012 Universities Human Resources awards for excellence in HR within higher education being cited as creating a ‘brilliant line of sight from the organisation, to the individual staff member, to students’. The People Management Framework at Leeds University is designed ‘to embrace the importance of developing a supportive high performance culture’ and the University of Birmingham has its Sustainable Excellence Programme.

 ‘Employers of choice’

But, is this in any way new? The journey can be traced back to 2004 certainly, with sector-wide initiatives such as the Framework Agreement which modernised pay structures and the Rewarding and Developing Staff initiative which pump-primed targeted staffing strategies.

Universities have for a long time been ‘employers of choice’, offering attractive total reward and benefit packages, great development opportunities and good working conditions. However, this is now increasingly articulated as an institutional objective and there is an accompanying awareness that sustaining excellence requires not just high calibre people but also enabling management, open and engaged leadership and flexible, competitive reward packages.

I believe what we see now in our member institutions’ varied HR strategies demonstrates that they see the workforce challenge as being about a lot more than pay, or indeed reward in its many forms. The task of sustaining a high performing, adaptable and flexible workforce is complex. HR strategies still address the important areas of recruitment, retention, engagement, performance, reward and recognition but crucially we see these being underpinned by a real drive for leadership and management that is up to the task.

Helen Fairfoul is the chief executive of UCEA