HR lessons from the higher education sector

Sarah Fowler
September 14, 2016

When I first started working in higher education I had little concept of the scale and complexity of a university. I had gone to university, but up until that point I had thought of them exclusively as providers of tertiary degree education. I had little understanding of universities as centres for research and innovation and no concept of the complex machinery which navigated them – the large departments dedicated to IT, finance, marketing and student recruitment, government liaison, education and research support and, increasingly as government funding is stripped away, industry and philanthropic fund-sourcing. Embarrassingly for someone employed into the HR department, I also had little understanding of the size of universities as employers. Australian public universities collectively employ around 124,000 (FTE) staff. Larger universities pay literally tens of thousands of people every year.

I certainly did not appreciate the importance of the higher education sector to the Australian economy. International student education is a $19.2 billion industry. It is Australia’s third largest export after coal and iron ore; it is both Victoria and NSW’s largest. Higher education is big business and universities are large, multi-faceted and complex organisations.


Common challenges facing HR


There are many things that are peculiar to working in an academic environment but many of the challenges facing HR in universities are shared with other sectors. Here are just four:

1. The accelerating rate of technological change

Who can keep up with technology today? The answer for universities is – students can. University students are early adopters and savvy consumers of technology and many educational institutions are battling to keep up. The standard lecture/tutorial format that was the staple of my university education is rapidly being supplemented with mechanisms like online forums, MOOCs, blended learning using online content and social media.

As with any sector dealing with major technological change, this places unprecedented demands on employees who are expected to adapt.

The lesson for HR…

Be mindful of the impact technological change has on its staff and ensure employees are provided with the training and support they need to tackle these challenges head on – especially as Australia’s population ages. It also means you need to give careful thought to workforce design to ensure the capability is there to keep up. And of course, the challenges of the “dark side” of social media need to be controlled through clear policies on acceptable use.

2. Working with creators and innovators

Many academics are creative forces engaged in inspiring research aimed at making the world a better place. This laudable but singular focus means some academics have little allegiance to the university that employs them. This can create challenges for HR. As a colleague once asked me, how do you make someone finding a cure for cancer complete a performance plan? In rare cases it can also lead to a sense of being “untouchable” and result in bad behaviour.

The lesson for HR…

Give innovators in all industries the space they need to do marvellous things by limiting unnecessary “bureaucracy” which may only stifle their creativity. A little support can go a very long way. On the flipside, make sure you have clear and accepted ethical standards to apply when things go wrong.

3. Being “collegial”

Implementing change in a community of critical thinkers can be challenging. It can also be hugely enriching. Engaging in genuine consultation is especially crucial in an organisation where employees expect to be asked their opinion and expect to be heard.

As a large, multi-faceted organisation, a university may have a particular culture but will also be a collective of different sub-cultures – a faculty of medicine can be a very different beast to a business school, for example.

The lesson for HR…

In contemplating the best means to communicate and implement change, be mindful of this cultural matrix and be creative and flexible in explaining and executing change.

4.  A sum of its parts

Increasingly, the performance of universities is being measured. In 2012, the Australian Research Council (ARC) introduced Excellence in Research Australia (ERA) which measures the quality of an institution’s research performance. In addition, there are various international rankings which list the world’s top universities. These international rankings are not only prestige measures but powerful attractors of international students. In order to increase overall organisational performance, many universities have started to define clear performance expectations for their individual academic staff and hold them to account for meeting them. This demonstrates that like many organisations, a university is a sum of its parts and can only be as good as the people that work in it.

The lesson for HR….

Individual performance expectations which are extrapolated from the overall aims and goals of an organisation, clearly articulated and measurable will ultimately propel your organisation to success.


About Sarah Fowler


Sarah Fowler


Sarah Fowler joined Worklogic in September, 2016 following many years working for universities, most recently as Director, Workplace Relations at Monash University. Her expertise spans workplace relations including employee grievances and workplace disputes, workplace policy, staff equity, ethical conduct (including bullying, discrimination and harassment), academic performance and performance development.

She understands well the challenges of large, complex public sector organisations and how to navigate through the complexities. She is renowned for finding the most simple and effective solution for complex and multi-faceted problems.

Worklogic offers a range of services aimed at building a positive workplace culture and reducing conflict. For advice on maximising performance, managing change or reducing conflict in the workplace, please contact Sarah via email or give her a call on (03) 9981 6578.

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