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Human Resource Management in Higher Education

Inspirations: From MODERN Project to Higher Education Management Training in China

Qi Sun and Meijia Lu

 1. Introduction

Human resource management has gained popularity in the area of higher education management recently; it refers to “those activities undertaken by an organization to effectively utilize its human resources” such as: recruitment, staff development, performance management, compensation, rewarding and training (Dowling, Festing & Engel, 2008). Among these activities, human resource training is appealing to some researchers, especially in the field of higher education. Human resource management training in higher education is usually related to leadership or management training.

The MODERN project, European Platform Higher Education Modernization, leading by ESMU (European Centre for Strategic Management of Universities) is a programme aiming at the study of current issues of human resource management in European higher education. It conducted surveys on higher education management in Europe and also provided some new ideas on human resource training.

In this paper, the study results from Project MODERN will be applied to analyze the current human resource training in China. Although China has its specific situation on human resource management, the inspirations from Project MODERN might still be able to bring some new thoughts of training to China.


 2. The MODERN Project

The MODERN project is an EU-funded Structural Network under the Lifelong Learning programme (ERASMUS). The project is a consortium consists of around 40 partners joining forces providing a structured answer concerning the supply of management support to HEIs and encouraging the professionalization of higher education management at various levels (MODERN Leaflet, 2014). Partners are all associations and/or providers in the field of higher education management. The purpose of this platform is to assist solving the managerial problems brought by educational reform in HEIs in Europe. In order to increase the attractiveness and the competences of HEIs in Europe, “MODERN contributes to raising awareness in European higher education institutions on the strong need to invest in people, to support potential leaders and to encourage management training at all levels” (Maassen & Pausits, 2012, P5). One part of the MODERN project is Mapping The Field, which consists of three surveys (ibid, P10):

  • The demand for higher education leadership and management training aiming at developing general leadership and management competences and skills in higher education;
  • The supply of leadership and management training programs in HEIs;
  • The second round needs analysis which was an extension of the first survey.

The first questionnaire mainly includes the background information of the HEIs and the working staffs from different groups in HEIs, main training challenges and needs, institutional investments and actions concerning leadership and management training needs, major gaps, priorities/urgency and management training needs of new managers and senior academic staff. The second questionnaire is made up of the following contents: basic information of the provider, study and training programs, the target audiences, contents, mode of study and training activities.


3. Inspirations from The MODERN Project

According to the study and results shown in MORDERN project, there are three perspectives underdeveloped in China: training targets, training contents and training forms. The following part will analyze those in detail.

3.1 The targets of the training should be clearly defined.

Maassen and Pausits had conducted surveys of the demands of the management training and the current provision of management training, and also analyzed the gaps between them. The survey groups were from several European HEIs and the groups were divided into four major categories with various sub-categories: institutional leaders (rectors, deans, administrative leaders, etc.), senior managers (central and faculty level senior administrative staff and senior administrators at departments and research centers.), new administrative staff from faculties, departments and research centers and the academic staff (ibid, P12-13). The project indicates that the trainings are designed to train the staff in HEIs to have better skills or strategic concepts of leadership, governance and management. These three perspectives contained in management trainings in HEIs merged by external and internal factors. The internal reforms include the competence ability, the transition from academic heartland to strategic thinking, and the keen requirements of highly performed abilities of leadership, management and governance. The eternal needs are from the gradually raising public duties and self-governance in HEIs. HEIs need the professional management skills to balance the different demands from publics and to control the power following the self-governance. All these perspectives lead the demands of modern HEIs to train management staff to know how to scientifically deal with policies or decisions, as well as the top leaders and the skills on strategic management and decision-making.

In the past, the targets of management training activities were narrowed by the demands of the central government in China, decision-making is not included especially. This might be caused by following reasons: First, the specialization of higher education in China resulting in the consequence that even a rector or dean in HEIs had limited right to conduct policy decision-making; Second, the role of the administrative staff is still under the influences from Mao’s period when the political and academic dimension appears to be more significant than culture, economic or other administrative factors (Cao, 1998, P30).  Thus, the targets of training in China were mainly political. How to be politically correct to achieve a promotion is the target , while how to be a good leader after the promotion is not taken into account. So does the staff, even though they have the willingness to improve their management skills, the target of political correctness is overwhelming. The concepts of quality and structure of higher education are unlike those defined in western countries related with decision-making and administration. In contrast, for both political perspective and professional perspective, the targets of training are narrow. Regarding political perspective, the target is to pursue ‘insistence on socialist consciousness’ while the professional target focuses on teaching and training skills (Cao, 1998, P30). However, as already indicated in the external and internal factors, the target should meet the needs to promote governance autonomy, competition, and financing autonomy in University. Compared with the demanding targets showed in the survey, HEIs in China need to rethink what kind of leadership and management a university required. The leaders and managers need to acquire strong strategic thinking and vigorous decision-making process, in order to understand the different values and solve the complicated tasks (Burquel, 2012, P7).

In recent years, efforts have been made to formulate the target of training in China scientifically. However, the effect is not significant and this is obvious to see from one existed problem of higher education management training in China: the training activities and curricula are still not designed according to the different demands of the clients. For example, top leaders will not use some basic management skills and academic staff have no chance to make a decision or to use the leadership skills in China. However, the same training activities are provided to the two different level trainee groups. This may lead to a problem that parts of the training contents are useless to the trainees and lead the training per se gradually losing its attractiveness. If HEIs can not make a widely and clearly target at the beginning, it would be very hard to define a wider sub-targets to design the details.

3.2 The contents of the training activities should be well-designed.

Figure 1. Areas of training needs for institutional leadership (source: Maassen & Pausits, 2012, P17)

From the survey of the needs in MODERN (Maassen & Pausits, 2012, P16-18), it is clear to see that training in strategic tasks is of high value for the leaders in HEIs while training activities concerning operational tasks are of great importance to managers. If we look at the Figure 1 in detail, the needs for institutional strategic management, research and innovation strategy development are at the top among the areas of needs for institutional leadership, followed by policies of human resources, 


Figure 2. Areas of training needs for institutional managers (source: Maassen & Pausits, 2012, P18)

internationalization, institutional quality and finance. Those ranking top among the areas of training needs for institutional managers (Figure 2) are education and research administration,  marketization and financial affairs, followed by fundraising and affairs of quality, personnel and internationalization. It is obvious to see from above that despite the differences between the two training fields, areas concerning human resources, finance, internationalization and quality were of great significance for the training activities both in institutional leadership and managers. Besides, the survey also analyzed the desired areas of leadership training from individual perspective (ibid, P21), where strategic management and innovation strategy again rank high among other options, following is the human resources policy, research strategy development, organizational culture and internationalization policy. These three survey results are also more or less suitable for HEIs in China.

Nowadays in China, the higher education system is under the significant transition from academic heartland to modern marketization, which requires the working staffs from top leaders to managers with more competences in HEIs. For instance, in the past, leaders in HEIs mainly followed the directions and instructions from the central government in academic, financial and other areas from day to day. However, HEIs could not survive without well-prepared leaders and managers. In order to realize the modernization of different types of HEIs with various focusing areas in China, leaders in HEIs need to develop their specific strategic plans which suitable for their own HEIs, as well as in line with the directions from the central government, which could only be achieved when leaders in HEIs are well equipped with the knowledge of institutional strategic management and research and innovation strategy development. Besides, financial issues are also of great importance to HEIs in reform. For example, there are more stakeholders in HEIs currently than before, which make the financial issues in HEIs more complicated than the past. Funding came mainly from the government in the past in Chinese HEIs. However, governmental funding is only a part of the HEIs nowadays, others come from the tuition fees from students, funds from industries and so on, that is one of the reasons why the option of training activities in partnerships with industry also ranked quite high in the areas of training needs for institutional leadership. As mentioned above, issues concerning finance were of great value from both perspectives of leaders and managers. That is also true in China, since from top leaders to senior managers and academic staffs, financial issues are inevitable. Only when the top leaders make wise decisions, managers implement the decisions and distribute the funding reasonably, academics use the funding for research activities effectively, the funds could be made the most of by HEIs without unnecessary wasting. Internationalization is another important issue for Chinese HEIs. With the Open Door Policy carried out in China, Chinese HEIs seek more cooperations with international HEIs in order to be able to engage more with the whole world and to achieve the aim of developing a number of world-class top universities. Thus, when designing the contents of the training activities for leaders and managers in HEIs in China, the areas mentioned above should be taken into consideration, other than the usual unpractical contents for the training activities.


3.3 The forms of the training activities should be reasonable arranged.

In the survey, four major training activities (master programme, short-time courses, conferences and seminars) were listed in the questionnaire to compare which is more efficient and which is the most popular one. The results show that the most efficient and ideal modes of training activities are master programme and short-time courses. While the conferences and seminars had a higher rate of support from the interviewees. However, these preferred form of training activities, such as conference or seminar chosen by the four-layer participants, were not the best way to develop the expertise. This kind of gap also exists in current Chinese higher education management training activities. In the speeches from the leader of Wuhan Textile University, Shang (2011) mentioned that the current management training activities in Chinese HEIs are limited mainly in two modes: conferences and courses, which had not achieved the expected goal of training. Indeed, Chinese higher education has its own features, however, the top leaders and managers prefer to choose a way which takes less time and will be more easier to continue studies. These gaps could be explained in a certain way under the Chinese special situation: professors sometimes took over the administrative work at full level, to persuade the staffs at the professor-title level to participate in the further training is quite difficult and this is also a main trouble confronting higher education management training (Hall, 2009, P20). Thus, the short-time conferences or simple courses are more persuasive, due to the fact that it will take shorter time and the form of the activities is discussion rather than teaching. Compared with China where Master level training is seldom provided, there are Master level training programs containing well-designed training activities in the USA and Europe. However, as stated, conferences and seminars are not the best methods to train staff with leadership and strategic management skills. The Master programs should be introduced into the management training system in China, and it could start from the senior management staff or the new coming staff who are eager to develop their managerial abilities.



Higher education management training is quite a new field of human resource development, but it has already gained more and more attention nowadays. In Europe and China, the higher education reforms are the incentive to raise management training in HEIs. The modernization of human resources management in HEIs meets the demands of the enhancement of competence, attractiveness and the satisfaction of stakeholders. However, management training in HEIs in Europe and China developed later than that in USA and has not perfected the training system yet. Thus, the necessary of complementing each other is required. Especially, higher education management training in China had been limited and restricted by old training patterns; the development has more deficiencies than that in Europe. The clear target division, modern and diversified mode of training activities, and the professional curricula design are all absent in higher education management training in China. Through the survey from the MODERN project, how the mapping of management training should be draw in China could be inspired. The gaps of governance, management and financing skills, as three main parts of higher education management training, should be filled if the training activities expect scientific developments on its organization of trainees, curriculum and patterns.

Higher education management training in China will have longer way to go compared with western countries, and this is decided by the specific higher education system. Will the experiences learnt from Europe and the USA be suitable for Chinese situation? This still need time to testify. It could be considered to establish an international management training platform, for instance, MODERN can cooperate with some Asian HEIs to set up a higher education management training platform. This might attract more resources and investments to MODERN as well as provide a boarder data for worldwide analysis of higher education management training. Moreover, for developing countries like China, they will have the chance to get involved in the more efficient management trainings directly. This may help some of the leaders or academic staff to change their inherent and conservative opinions on higher education management training. Last but not least, since higher education management training becomes more and more important worldwide, we hope the experiences and inspirations extracted from MODERN will be of great value not only to the management training development in China but also to other areas and countries.



Burquel, N (2012), Training university leaders and managers – why and how? Leadership and Governance in Higher Education, Volume No. 1, 2012

Cao,X.N. (1998), The Strategic role of Faculty Development and Management, The Higher Education in Post-Mao China. Hong Kong University Press, Hong Kong.

Hall, A. (2009), Getting to Grips with Human Resource Management Resources for Governors of UK Universities and Higher Education Colleges. Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, London.

Maassen,P.& Pausits, A.(2012), MAPPING THE FIELD: Report on the Needs and the Supply of Higher Education Leadership and Management Training in Europe. MODERN Platform Working Document

Peter J. Dowling, Marion Festing, Allen D. Engle(2008) International Human Resource Management: Managing People in a Multinational Context, Thomas Learning, London.

Shang,G. (2011), A speech: Emphasizing the Higher Education Management Training. (党委书记尚钢同志在培训班上的讲话:重视高校行管人员培训),WuHan Textile University. http://xcb.wtu.edu.cn/webs/study/view.asp?id=87

 MODERN Leaflet, http://www.highereducationmanagement.eu/images/stories/MODERN_Leaflet.pdf (05.01.2014)


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