The importance of HRM in higher education | Sunday Observer

The importance of HRM in higher education

Human Resource Management (HRM or HR) in Higher Education Institutions (HEI) is not a topic discussed much in business and or education forums around the world. But the importance of the topic is accentuated with the increasing trends of globalisation and commercialisation of education and evolution of world economies towards knowledge economies.

HRM as we know it today has come a long way from its ideological beginning in the early 1900s. But the ways and means our ancestors used in training the young during hunter-gatherer time and the ways different tribes groomed and selected their successive leaders show that the concept goes back even further in time. Industrialists such as Frederick Taylor and Henry Ford introduced ‘Scientific Management’ of the production processes where they knew exactly how many jobs in their manufacturing process can be done by people with just one skill, two specific skills and so on, all the way down to the number of tasks that can be fulfilled even by visually impaired people.

Using scientific methods to determine the most efficient way to work and matching workers to tasks they are suited to, were two key principles of scientific management then.. The idea of establishing a ‘Personal Administration’ department seemed effective in the early 1900s after some labour strikes and employee lockouts. One of the other major contributors to HRM in the 20th century is the ‘Hierarchy of Human Needs’ introduced by the psychologist Abraham Maslow in 1943 where he introduced the pyramid of needs with physiological needs at the base and then safety, belongingness and love, esteem needs respectively going up the pyramid with self-actualization needs at the top.

Human resource

Combine this with what the industry had accepted as the ‘personal administration’ by that time to see the evolution of HRM to what it mainly is in the 21st century. Fast forwarding towards knowledge economies at present, one can see that the human resource, synonymous with the knowledge capital, is considered as the most valuable asset an organisation can have.

Therefore, HRM at present covers a much wider range of activities and responsibilities, including, but not limited to, integrated and complementary management strategies through planning and designing job descriptions, developing effective attraction and retention methods, handling performance management and reward programs, introducing and maintaining occupational health and safety systems, addressing the emotional wellbeing of employees, introducing employee code of ethics, conducting professional development programs and mediating employee grievances with the ultimate goal of maximising the individual and collective contributions to the achievement of organisational goals and objectives.

The broader version of this which emphasises the long-term strategies for the organisation, sometimes, is known as ‘Strategic Human Resource Management’ (SHRM).

Mergers and acquisitions due to globalisation, workforce diversification and rapid advancement of information and communication technology, among others, have changed the landscape of the workplace to an extent where HRM strategies have to be redesigned continuously to stay competitive in the market. Even though Higher Education Institutions (HEI) are essentially service providers, they, as organisations with employees, face the same types of challenges, especially since education is becoming more and more commercialised in the knowledge economies.

Almost all state universities in Sri Lanka are offering degree programs in HRM, some have Management Faculties with HRM departments but the universities do not have a central HRM unit and or HRM professionals to handle HR issues and or a comprehensive HRM plan for the institution. All state universities are supposed to adhere to one-size fits all type UGC circulars coming under the Universities Act of 1978. One of those circulars even limits the recruitment of non-academic staff of certain categories only through the lists of names sent by the line-Ministry. One doesn’t have to be a management guru to understand that competing in the global arena of higher education under those circumstances is not an easy task. Not only the academic staff but also the academic support staff and the non-academic staff all have to work as one team with the common goal of producing well-rounded graduates.

It is important to remember that the main business of our state universities is producing those graduates which can also be considered as a value addition process in the human resource pool of the country. Universities are supposed to create resourceful humans out of a set of GCE A/L qualified youngsters without any support from the experts in the field of HRM.

The famous Austrian-American management guru Peter Ferdinand Drucker said the most important contribution management needs to make in the 21st century is to increase the productivity of the knowledge worker. An adequate information system and creating the environment for learning, new society knowledge creation and continuous innovation are some of the important points he prescribes.

Providing employee autonomy instead of top-down approach is very important since a knowledge worker in a specialized area would most probably know more about his area of focus and about his customer’s needs than his supervisor or the manager.

Knowledge worker

A knowledge worker’s expectation is not just getting paid for the work done but seeing the valuable contribution he is making and being appreciated and be given the freedom to challenge his knowledge at his own will. Knowledge workers are highly motivated, just like volunteers in a charity organisation, when they understand the mission of the organization they work for and if they believe in it.

Reduced Government funding and increased expectations of graduates of higher standards have made the HRM in HEI even more important than before. Therefore, the operational and compliance-based activities in the industry that were once tied down with manual processing of data now should be automated to allow more time for strategic work. Digital transformation drives efficiencies in HRM.

Providing digital-first experiences is now becoming increasingly important for both staff and students in universities. Technological advancements allow HRM teams to design and conduct training programs at short notice.

Reviewing and coaching staff member performance is made simple with integrated performance management systems and goal-oriented learning management systems. At present most of the private HEI in the country are using the academic staff of state universities as visiting lecturers and/or as full-time lecturers during their sabbatical leave. Most of the academics also do not want to join private institutions on a permanent basis since those institutions still cannot match the reputation of leading state universities.

Therefore staying in the permanent position of a state university increases the marketability of an individual academic who is searching for part-time opportunities in private institutions. There may even be a few dishonest elements who work in private institutions during normal working hours while being in the full-time payroll of a state university. As the number of private HEI in the country is growing steadily offering higher salaries and benefits to their employees it will be hard for state universities to attract the best academics unless they keep their brand well above the rest.

In order to do that they have to show a higher productivity and maintain a better transparency in HRM activities through which they can market themselves as an institution that has eliminated nepotism, favoritism, political bias, gender bias and are truly an equal opportunity employer.

The writer has served in the higher education sector as an academic for over twenty years in the USA and thirteen years in Sri Lanka and can be contacted at [email protected]