The Society for Research into Higher Education

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“Your papers, please!”

By Paul Temple

I should admit at the start that I’ve never been a big fan of HR (or Personnel, as they used to be) departments, in universities or elsewhere. This may result from the tendency of HR people to patronise those they’re dealing with: “We’ve been considering your career options”, “Are you really a team player?”, and so on; and because, however matey the conversation, you need to remember that anything you say may be taken down and later used in evidence against you. The problem isn’t at all confined to universities: Lucy Kellaway used to write a workplace agony aunt column in the Financial Times which featured a running gag on the lines of, “Whatever your problem, going to HR will only make it worse”.

Roger Watson and David Thompson vented their accumulated irritations about university HR departments in a piece in THE on 8 March this year, arguing that the various “downward-spiralling” HR nonsenses that they listed “are just another symptom of the managerialism that is now the norm in UK universities”. Perhaps; but I don’t think that explains why HR departments are, apparently, more afflicted than Student Services, say, or Finance.

If you have recently acted as an external examiner (or something similar) in another university, you will probably have come up against the demand to demonstrate your “right to work”, and probably, for good measure, have been invited to enrol in the university’s pension scheme. I’m not the only person to have pointed out to various HR departments that turning up for a few hours, and then probably never setting foot in the place again, cannot possibly count as employment; but usually to no avail.

It’s interesting, though, that some universities get this right: Oxford, for example, provides a helpful list of the activities that people might do on behalf of the University – including external examining, giving one-off lectures, and so on – where, in Oxford’s view, the “right to work” issue does not arise. At one university where I was asked to examine a thesis and declined to get enmeshed in the “right to work” process, the HR people thought about it for a bit and then said, you’re right, of course being an external examiner doesn’t imply a contract of employment. Take a bow, Manchester Metropolitan University!

My current example, though, of HR dottiness is courtesy of Brunel University. Having agreed to talk at a seminar there, my host apologised for not being able to pay a fee but said that at least travel expenses would be met. She later had to qualify this, as she’d learned that expenses claims would only be paid if “right to work” requirements had been met. The long-suffering departmental administrator took this up with Brunel’s HR department: was it really the case that a two-hour visit to the campus and payment of a tube fare amounted to employment by the University? Came the reply (I summarise), our process is what it is, and we’re really not interested in other people’s views about it. (I didn’t claim for the tube fare.)

I don’t think that this quite supports the Watson and Thompson hypothesis of HR as managerialism-gone-mad. Managerialism (if it is anything) is about a focus on assessable outcomes (or at least outputs) and implementing efficiency gains to achieve them, possibly even at the cost of wider and longer-term institutional effectiveness. What these cases exemplify – as do those given by Watson and Thompson – is almost anti-managerialism, creating complications where none need exist. Instead, I am reminded of dealing with Eastern European education bureaucracies in the immediate aftermath of the collapse of Communism, where rule-following was the only consideration, regardless of the particularities of the situation. This attitude arose from, it seemed to me, a mixture of (historically justified) personal insecurity, leading to risk-aversion, and organisational authoritarianism, leading to a refusal to debate the merits of a policy.

The comparison with university HR departments derives from their apparent unwillingness, for perhaps broadly similar reasons, to enter into rational exchanges about why they do what they do, resulting in the passive-aggressive posture that I think irritates Watson and Thompson. Brunel’s HR people didn’t say to the department, “Look, this is why we do it differently to Oxford”: they just said, as if their processes were handed down from Mount Olympus, “This is the way we do it”. Which meant that they missed the opportunity of making a fairly good joke about this being Uxbridge, not Oxbridge.

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