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Human Resource Management in Higher Education

Human Resource Development in Higher Education

 Natalie Nestorowicz and Joo-Hyun Park



The development of human resource has become a pivotal strategy of organizations to make their employees adaptive to a changing environment. Fast-paced changes in tasks, tools and technologies create a working world in which a basic education or one-time training is replaced by a constant updating of skills. These circumstances urge employees to become lifelong learners. Even entire organizations embrace lifelong learning as their new philosophy and transform into so-called, learning organization.[1]

Also, Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) undergo fundamental changes due to globalization, growing competition for funding and staff as well as increasing institutional autonomy. These changes are linked to new responsibilities requiring greater managerial and leadership competences (Pellert 2007). Especially the university’s responsibility towards its employees has changed - from simply administering to managing staff. In order to successfully adapt to this institutional shift and become more competitive in a complex environment, more and more HEIs adopt different strategies to better deploy their human resource. In view the fact that the investment for employees accounts for the largest share of university expenditure, human resource is the most valuable asset of HEIs and gains in importance in university affairs (Evans & Chun 2012).

The following paper focuses on human resource development (HRD) activities in higher education. The paper consists of two parts each highlighting a different aspect of HRD. The first one focuses on the narrow and more commonly used meaning of HRD relating to the measurements an organization undertakes to develop their staff. Within this part the definition of the term HRD and the challenges of establishing HRD strategies in universities will be discussed. According to the authors’ view a limitation to the conventional understanding of HRD as staff development falls too short in the context of universities. Therefore, the second part of this paper proposes an extension of the meaning and use of HRD within universities by taking into account also the development of students.


Definition of Human Resource Development

There are various definitions of HRD, which differ in focus, purpose and goals according to the context. Despite numerous attempts in literature to define HRD, a consensus on a specific definition does not exist. However, two strands of definitions can be identified: one referring to a broader and the other to a narrower understanding of HRD. In the broad sense HRD seeks to develop people’s “knowledge, expertise, productivity and satisfaction, whether for personal or group/ team gain, or for the benefit of an organisation, community, nation, or ultimately, the whole of humanity.” (McLean & McLean 2001).

In the narrow sense HRD is used as a generic term for systematic and planned activities implemented by an organization to enhance the professional qualifications of its employees with regard to the objectives of the organisation. This interpretation of HRD is usually equated with Training and Development and forms the most widely practiced one within organisations (O’Donnell, McGuire & Cross 2006).

Apart from the different understandings of HRD there is also confusion over the boundaries delineating Human Resource Development from Human Resource Management (HRM). The terms HRM and HRD are often used interchangeably, both in theory and practice (O’Donnell, McGuire & Cross 2006). Usually, however, HRD is considered a subset of HRM. In order to make a clearer distinction between these two terms, McLagan (1989) has delineated the various dimensions and functions of both in the so-called “human resource wheel”. The functions of HRD depicted in the wheel can also be found in the most popular among the definitions of HRD, defining it as “the integrated use of training and development, organization development, and career development to improve individual, group and organizational effectiveness." (McLagan 1989).


Functions of Human Resource Development

According to McLagan’s human resource wheel, HRD comprises three distinct functions: training and development, organization development and career development.


Human resource wheel (source: McGuire & Jorgensen 2011)


Training and Development

Training refers to reactive and short-term activities that focus on changing or improving knowledge, skills or attitudes of individuals to perform a particular job or task. These activities mostly comprise skills, which are immediately needed and have an immediate benefit, whereas development activities concentrate on new skills and abilities aiming for future job opportunities. Usually Training and Development (T&D) measures comprise three major competence areas:

  • methodological competence (teaching, administration, IT- Systems, Finance, Legal know-how, Safety and Security, etc.)
  • self-confidence and social competence (personality and soft skills, Time management, Work-Life Balance, languages, etc.)
  • management competence (Leadership development, project management, etc.)

Another effective T&D tool regards employee orientation or induction, where a new employee learns about the organizational values, norms and tasks. The induction of new employees includes activities such as:

  • the mentoring by a colleague of the same hierarchy level that cares for the new colleague and is responsible for his/her integration or
  • a well defined induction program for the first months of employment or
  • simply an “employee handbook” to facilitate the orientation.

Furthermore, various individual measures such as on-the-job training, mediation, mentoring, coaching and counselling for organisational units, project groups or individuals are included in T&D actions. While coaching refers to activities where employees are treated as partners in achieving both personal and organizational goals, counselling supports employees to deal with personal problems that could prevent them to achieve these goals (Böckelmann, Reif, Fröhlich 2010; Werner & DeSimone 2012).


Organization development

The second functional area of HRD refers explicitly to the development of the organization. Its purpose is to improve the relationships and processes between and among units, groups and individuals. Organizational development activities relate more to long-term strategies aiming for a holistic development of the organization in order to increase its overall efficiency (Werner & DeSimone 2012).


Career development

Career development includes both career planning and career management. Career planning refers to skills assessment through counsellors, who assist employees in pursuing their career plans. Career management on the other hand is responsible for actually taking the necessary steps to achieve these plans. In the university context the tenure track model is one example of designing adequate career paths for university teachers to eventually obtain a high level of professional stability (Werner & DeSimone 2012).

Ultimately, all HRD measures intend to cause a greater efficiency and effectiveness through fully committed and skilled employees, who perform their work in alignment with the goals of their organization.


Purpose of HRD

The three core functions of HRD perfectly illustrate that HRD affects both the development of individuals and organizations. Therefore, the purpose of HRD is twofold. One the one hand it provides opportunities for employees to improve their skills on the other hand it aims for an efficient utilization of human resource in order to meet organizational objectives. The HRD discourse is dominated by the instrumental understanding of HRD that puts emphasis on organizational goals and economic performance. Some scholars criticize that HRD puts the interests of the organization above the individual benefit and thus turning the organization into the main beneficiary of HRD activities. At best, organizational and personal needs match, resulting in a mutual gain agenda (O’Donnell, McGuire & Cross 2006).


Challenges in the university context

Despite the high expenditures of HEIs on their staff a systematic application of strategic planning, managing and developing of human resources is only poorly established in the university context (Pellert 2007). HRD is mainly practised indirectly, unintendently and intuitively. It is the university’s idiosyncrasy that makes it especially difficult to implement strategic human resource development.

First of all, HEIs differ from other organizations. Universities are described as fragmented, loosely coupled organizations (Weick 1976) with a lack of shared institutional standards. The reason lies in the weak identification of academics with the university at which they are employed. Usually, academics identify more with their discipline and international scientific community than with their department, faculty or university. Furthermore, most HRD activities such as induction, training and development are still performed informally and through socialisation within the discipline (Pellert 2007). These specific academic conditions contradict the concept of HRD that is strongly oriented towards the organization. However, more and more HEIs are establishing their own HRD units to prepare their staff adequately for current or future position. But still, HRD mostly affects only young university staff, as it is still rare that a professor takes advantage of training and development activities.


Strategies and directions to develop HR in HE

HRD activities strive towards activities that advance staff members’ competencies so they have the skills to assume tasks aligned with the strategic direction of the university. If the strategic direction is not clear or HRD activities are not in alignment with the strategy, HRD activities become inefficient and useless, even if they are excellent. Therefore, it is crucial to understand the role of higher education and the current flow of their change to figure out what role career development should play in HEIs.

In general, HE carries out two functions: research and teaching. Teaching includes academic education as well as vocational education. Vocational education is more likely to be included in HRD, but also teaching can be included in HRD in a large sense. Nowadays, the governments and HEIs emphasize the function of research in HEIs more and more. Popular ranking systems are considering the performance of research more than teaching when they assess the competitiveness of HEIs.[2] Also, the evaluation of faculties takes research achievements more into account than teaching achievements. Under these circumstances HEIs and professors put a greater focus on research to achieve a good reputation and good evaluation results. As a result of this, teaching and vocational education, the essential and fundamental roles of HEIs, are often ignored and degraded.

On the other hand, HEIs have the chance to develop their teaching area as the demand for vocational education and training (VET) is increasing. With the advent of the knowledge-based economy, the VET system, which enhances knowledge and skills of workers, became more important for high competitiveness and employment rates. Moreover, the emergence of an aging society and the need for lifelong learning generate a higher demand for VET. In particular, small and medium sized companies cannot provide their own VET programs for their new and current employees. Therefore, HEIs are becoming more and more important in their function as VET providers. They can provide the necessary skills for both young people, who are preparing for future jobs and for aged people, who need continuing education for their current or new jobs. In this respect, the government should spend more of its HE budget on the implementation of vocational education in HEIs. But also HEIs must put more energy into highly qualified VET programs in order to meet the needs of the economy and the society. To fulfil this new role, HEIs have to intensify their relationship with industry in organizing curricula for VET. However, this can be quite a challenging task for faculties and staff, who are accustomed to the traditional academic education. In this sense, HRD activities within HEIs should be made with the prospect that VET would be a big chance as well as challenge for HEIs.  Also, HEIs need a strategy to collaborate with industry more effectively in order to prepare well-tempered VET curricula.


HRD for students

HEIs are by their very nature institutions for HRD since they teach students and scientific employees, and lectures in each discipline can be related to individual skills. Stephan Vincent-Lancrin identifies three factors as individual skills for innovation: subject-based skills which refer to know-what and know-how; behavioural and social skills, which relate to self-confidence, energy, perseverance, passion, leadership, collaboration and communication; and skills in thinking and creativity, which involve critical thinking, ability to make connections, imagination and curiosity (Vincent-Lancrin 2011). This strongly implies that all the contents in HEIs can be related to individual skills and HRD. Moreover, in the changing world of work, the distinction between academic and vocational/practical work becomes blurred.

However, in most countries academic education and vocational education are differentiated from each other, and in any case it is believed that VET courses in HEIs are directly related to HRD. Therefore, vocational education in HEIs can be another part of HRD along with that for their employees. In fact, VET courses in HEIs are offered to their students including those for degrees and those for continuing programs. Also, employees at HEIs are able to attend these VET programs with the students of the courses. Thus, VET courses in HEIs can serve as HRD for students.

Many countries have their own vocational education system within HEIs. The USA has developed a community college system, which has two to three year courses with a curriculum adapted to the needs of the local community. The UK has FE (further education) colleges supported by the local government with one to two year- courses. Korea has junior colleges with two to three year course and polytechnics with less than one year. Whereas the VET courses of higher education in most countries are established and funded by the government, in Korea 136 of the 145 junior colleges are private. About one fourth of HE students in Korea are attending junior colleges. Germany has university of applied science with a curriculum of four years, where about a third of students are studying. The applied-science universities are supported by the central government as well as by companies. This system was adapted in Austria and Switzerland, too. France has tertiary-level colleges of technology with two-year course designed as a direct preparation for work. Also, the bachelor diploma at university is divided into a general diploma and a vocational diploma. The master degree is divided into a professional master and a research master. The French vocational diploma at university-level was introduced in 1999, and combines theory-based study with practical workplace experience. Furthermore, it requires the completion of a mentored project (Cedefop 2008). Finland has a very strong polytechnic system. The curriculum of polytechnics takes 3.5 to 4 years, and the degree is equal to that of universities. After the 1990s, as an innovation of HEIs, Finland united the nationwide existing 250 vocational skill training schools into 29 polytechnics. This process took ten years. The Finnish polytechnics are intended to keep the balance between the research for industry and vocational training for industry with a strong connection to the local industry. Finnish polytechnics enter into a contract with the Ministry of Education and the local government. Based on these contracts their funding is allocated. (Davies et al. 2009; OECD)

As seen above, there are several types of vocational education in HEIs, such as community college, FE College, junior college, vocational diploma, university of applied science, and polytechnics. They can be classified into two groups according to their specific features. In Anglo-American-style and Asian countries vocational training in HEIs is carried out in a short time and their social recognition is rather low. However, as these countries become more interested in the development of vocational competences, they shift towards emphasizing the importance of higher vocational training institutes in tertiary education. Germany and other European countries determine the career path relatively early as vocational training already takes place within the secondary education. However, with the advent of the knowledge economy developed and the increase of unemployment, the focus of vocational training is shifting towards the level of higher education. The Finnish polytechnic system is a successful example of how HEIs managed to strengthen their HRD system through innovation. There are more countries where higher vocational education institutions are rather public than private, and their funding is also heavily reliant on the government, especially the state or local government. Also, adult continuing education is emphasized and the general tendency is to expand recognition of credits and various curricula (OECD 2009).



The importance of human resource development strategies for employees has already been recognized in the university context and universities are already in progress of developing adequate measures. Many universities have even established special HRD departments and their activities range from mentoring new employees to developing leadership skills of managers. Despite the increasing efforts of university management to implement HRD strategies in their institutions, university staff does not willingly accept their interventions. The reason for this, it is believed, is the fact that HRD activities are closely linked to the organization’s own goals, whereas academic staff is lacking a strong attachment to the organization, respectively university, they work for. But HEIs could make a virtue out of necessity. They could expand their HRD strategy and offer courses that are less tied to the organizational objectives but rather directed towards VET in general. That way they would not only increase the attractiveness of HRD among their employees but would also appeal to another target group, the students. So far, there are no efforts to integrate students in the universities HRD plans. HEIs can take up the blue ocean market by establishing high-qualified vocational education programs and courses for students including also adult learners. With the introduction of vocational training programs, HEIs would signalize that they actually meet the needs of economy and society. Certainly, for faculties and administrators, who are already for a long time adapted to the academic curriculum, it would be a challenging venture to establish VET courses in cooperation with the fast-moving industry. In this respect, HEIs need to prepare well-designed HRD activities for their faculties and staff in order to cope with the challenging task of creating vocational education programs with companies. Also, they need to strengthen the role and the ability of the HRD department. It would be a very promising innovation for HEIs to connect both sides of their human capital - HRD for employees and HRD for students – in their HRD strategies. By offering a specially designed VET program for both employees and students HEIs could “catch two birds with a stone”.



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[1] By definition an organization becomes a learning organization when it “facilitates the learning of all its members and continuously transform itself “ (Pedler, Burgoyne and Boydell 1991) and “has an enhanced capacity to learn, adopt and embrace the culture of LLL” (Kumpikaite 2008).

[2] The OECD is carrying out a Feasibility Study for the Assessment of Higher Education Learning Outcomes (AHELO). The OECD explains that the narrow range of criteria used in university rankings creates a distorted vision of educational success and fail to capture the essential elements of an education: teaching and learning. Also, it says that AHELO widens the scope of criteria and evaluates an education, which will allow HEIs to set their own priorities, concentrate on their strengths, address their weaknesses, and plan their futures as they see fit.

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