The Society for Research into Higher Education

Paul Temple

If HR is the answer, perhaps we’re asking the wrong question

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By Paul Temple

We all know that universities are, above all, people businesses. Every university depends on specialist staff to provide often complex services typically to thousands of students, some of them on a one-to-one basis. Their academic staff members are mostly expected to work at the intellectual frontiers of their disciplines, and are relied on to do so with minimal supervision. The people management issues involved here must therefore be a central concern for any university’s senior management: get this wrong, and the place is in real trouble. So the HR director has a task of at least comparable importance to her colleagues directing teaching, planning research, or exercising overall financial control. Universities are all about people, so HR has to be a key function – right?

Wrong. The analogy with finance, in particular, is tempting but false. One pound is identical to any other pound (they’re “fungible”) – so the finance director might reasonably argue that shifting money from supporting research to enhancing teaching, say, might do more to achieve the university’s overall goals. Because they’re identical, pounds can be added up to give a picture of the university’s finances overall: a surplus of £1 from teaching history looks the same in the annual accounts as a surplus of £1 from a chemistry research contract. But if the HR director were to suggest that Dr Jones should be moved from research into teaching, the response would almost certainly be to inquire into the HR director’s expertise in cell biology, or medieval French literature, or whatever. Dr Jones’s personal characteristics cannot simply be added to a list of characteristics of staff members generally. That’s one reason why the “human resources” title is misleading: yes, Jones is human, and is a resource for the university, but the two words mean less together than they do separately.

University (and not only university) HR departments have somehow got ideas above their station. I think I can show that this isn’t just golden-ageism by reference to the first book aiming at comprehensive coverage of university management in the UK, Geoffrey Lockwood and John Davies’s 1985 Universities: The Management Challenge. The chapter here on “Personnel Management” is by Richard Beck, then (please note) Establishment Officer at UEA – a common job title then in central and local government. The role described by Beck does indeed revolve around the limited role of managing a staff establishment – recruiting it, paying it, dealing with its trade unions, advising on legislation about it, and providing it with various sorts of training – though he does end, prophetically, by suggesting that the function “is poised to develop further”. He wasn’t wrong there.

The Financial Times columnist Lucy Kellaway writes an agony aunt column about office life in which a running gag has the questioner asking, “Should I go to HR?” about whatever the tricky situation is. Her standard answer is that HR are the very last people to ask for advice about matters involving human relationships – what is likely to happen, she has noted, is that you, the seeker of help, will be identified as the problem: by definition, you have displayed inadequate emotional intelligence, or exhibited poor leadership skills, to allow the problem to arise in the first place. This is the default HR position – it’s always somebody else’s fault.

But it’s even worse than that: the modern HR function blurs the responsibility of managers for their staff because of a vague sense that HR are somehow looking after things (they aren’t, obviously). This is particularly ironic given the current higher education fad of leadership: if leadership means anything, it should mean taking total organisational responsibility for the people reporting to you. Stay away from HR.

SRHE member Paul Temple, Centre for Higher Education Studies, Institute of Education, University of London.

Author: SRHE News Blog

An international learned society, concerned with supporting research and researchers into Higher Education

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