English |  Español |  Français |  Italiano |  Português |  Русский |  Shqip

Human Resource Management in Higher Education


Interaction between general management, human resource department and other academic departments

Michail Balyasin and Haftu Hindeya Gebremerkel


With switch to entrepreneurial universities and prominence of New Public Management in modern universities, Human Resource Management (HRM) unit is gaining importance as there is a need to optimize expenditures. Another important consideration which elevates HRM unit at the university is the fact that on average universities spend 60-80% of their budgets on staff. Combining these two factors, it is possible to see that HRM unit should be an important part of every university which is looking to become an active player on regional, national and especially world scale.

In this paper, we have looked at how (and if) HRM unit interacts with general management and other academic departments at universities. First part is dedicated to overview functions and roles which HRM unit has in modern university, as well as its position in organizational structure. Since this overview looks at a generic case, second part is dedicated to more practical overview of how HRM unit has found its place in university taking the cases of Ethiopia and Russia. In this section, we tried to show how HRM has been interacting with different units. The aim of the section is then to examine the current practices of HRM interaction and draw out lessons, compare these practices with the theoretical basis we mentioned in the paper and suggest way forward from the lessons learnt to enhance HRM interaction. In doing so, we have selected two universities in which we had experiences in teaching and management. The final part of the article is dedicated to practical recommendations on how to improve current situation with HRM in those national systems.

Role of HRM in universities

There is a very wide range of ways how HRM unit is incorporated and used at any given university. For example, in “very few universities in Central, Southern and Eastern Europe” HRM was established (Böckelmann et al., 2010), while it is much more common to have this unit operating in full force in Western universities (e.g., UK, US). This diversity can be summarized in two somewhat antithetical systems which are mostly common across this spectrum. Each of this model creates a very different outlook of how HRM unit interacts with general management and other academic departments. This classification is not comprehensive, but provides basis for discussion of how HRM unit can evolve from one system to another. Obviously, each system has its own advantages as well as disadvantages and we will mention them only briefly as discussion of those systems may be another chapter in this book.

If we look at Central, Eastern and Southern Europe it is possible to notice that HRM unit as such exists only to supplement function of the university. Usually, this unit is operating only to comply with national and regional labor laws and does not involve itself with business of human resource development or even recruiting. Recruiting is done usually at departmental level and HRM unit is only responsible to enlist this person so that it follows the rules and regulations in place. Disadvantages of this system include reactiveness, as there is no meaningful strategy in place, which means that HRM unit only reacts to external influences. In addition, very low commitment of staff and academics which is not fostered in any meaningful way. For instance, it fosters low level of engagement of staff and academics to institutional mission and goals, and low level of sustainability which means that if university is to operate in more business manner this type of HRM unit won't be good enough to create sustainable organizations for reasons which were discussed in the introduction. Advantages of this system mainly refer to the fact that this system is seen as traditional which means that top-management does not really see the reason to change it. If changes do happen, they are usually performed with top-down approach which brings whole new set of problems as “street-level bureaucrats” (Lipsky, 1980) often times dilute the change to near nothingness. Interaction of HRM unit in this system with other department and general management is limited to a very narrow range of questions of labor law and regulations in place. For example, one of the authors of this paper has interacted with HRM unit of his Russian university handful of times in almost 3 years of his employment and those interactions were strictly confined to requirements of labor law and regulations at the university.

Second type of system is when HRM unit does exist and it operates independently and reports directly to upper-management (not through financial department). As we have already mentioned, this system is pretty much opposite to the first one in that it has human resource development and sustainable growth of organization as its mission. Recruitment and even head-hunting is common, there is usually some sort of appraisal system which is directly tied to promotions and salary increases, each staff member and academic is aware of institutional mission and is using it in his or her everyday work. Some advantages of such system include high engagement of human resources, high degree of interaction between departments and upper-management. Disadvantage of this system is that it is very difficult to create it and that it requires a lot of work from everyone involved: not only HRM unit, but also staff members, academics, and upper-management. However, such system should be a goal of each university in current world of decreasing public funding and increasing competition. Interaction of HRM unit with academic departments and general management is of central importance as it becomes a facilitator of many changes inside an organization and provides a framework for the whole organization.

In the real world, each university will be some combination of those two systems, but if we are to understand how HRM unit should interact with other departments, the first thing is to define the mission statement and goals of such a unit. Should it be an independent unit? Should it be autonomous? What responsibilities should this unit have? What are the rules of engagements and scope of work for it? (Armstrong, 2003) All these questions (and many others) should be answered in order for HRM unit to be productive. This is not a trivial task, of course, in itself, but it lays foundation for how HRM unit should interact with other departments and what intensity, depth, and breadth this interaction should have.

Another set of dimensions which define how HRM unit interacts with various stakeholders in the university is roles and activities which are performed by HRM. These roles and activities are aligned along three main areas which follow each other in chronological order (Böckelmann et al., 2010): recruit-retain-develop.

  • Recruit area generally can be described as everything concerning human resources issues prior to the employment of the individual. It covers not only recruitment per se, but also questions of how many staff members should be employed, what are their responsibilities, gender and minority issues, law compliance, talent management, and so on. Each of this tasks requires various degrees of interaction with other actors in university and it presents HRM unit with opportunities to influence decision-making inside of the university in order for the whole organization to be successful, as well as to create positive image for potential employees.

  • Retain area is all about getting the most out of the employees while giving them a chance to realize their potential in professional area. Here we ought to consider both extrinsic and intrinsic motivation of employees (Zaugg et al., 2001).

    • With extrinsic motivation HRM unit is in charge of determining the salary of individuals, as well as conditions for salary raise or promotion. Here an important instrument is performance management with what often takes form of performance agreements for each individual. The choice of indicators to be included in those contracts is again more of an art, than strict science since what works in a university down the road may not be applicable to any given university, but those indicators should be aligned with strategic goal of a university (Burke, 2002). In this area, HRM unit has a lot of potential to influence decision-making process as indicators are usually based on top-down process when general management decides on strategic goals, but indicators themselves and how they are measured can be decided by HRM unit in interaction with both general management and academic departments.

    • Intrinsic motivation is much more difficult to define and hence to measure. Here HRM unit is in charge of creating an atmosphere where each employee (be it administrative or academic) should maximize his or her potential. It is also important to consider that often relying just on extrinsic motivation may be not sustainable since it might lead to unintended consequences from employees. While extrinsic motivators (e.g. salary) are important to functioning of an organization, it is intrinsic motivators (e.g., self-fulfillment, work-life balance etc) which are usually come to a forefront in a long run (Zaugg et al., 2001). HRM unit should be an active actor in identification and analysis of possible changes in work place (e.g., flexible timetable, possibility to work from home etc.) in order to create sustainable organization.

  • Development area is about providing learning opportunities for employees so that they can better themselves. This is mutually rewarding process as employees get the chance to better themselves, while university gets more motivated and educated worker who creates more value. The tools which can be used in this are numerous and, arguably, this is the biggest area for HRM are to be active at university. For instance, organization of seminars, continuous professional education and career planning can be an area where HRM unit interacts most heavily with academic departments and administrative staff.

The role of HRM unit in university can be extremely diverse. With models that we have outlined above its influence on organization can range from minimal to becoming an integral part of an organization. In next chapter, we will show what role exist for HRM units in real world examples, as well as provide some suggestions on how to enhance this role for those universities.

HRM Interaction with other units: Cases from two universities

Now let's see how HRM is functioning in these two cases from Ethiopia and Russia.

Bahir Dar University, one of the biggest universities in Ethiopia with 40,000 students and 2500 staff has HRM office under the Business Administration and Development vice president. HRM office structurally reports to this office. The office, however, accomplishes many of the activities in collaboration with academic vice president for academic affairs indirectly. The office, when seen in terms of structure, has no direct influence on college and faculty deans and their department units. Its relation with planning and finance office is horizontal belonging to same office for reporting and getting direction. Hence, this makes it structurally weak with no major influence on ground. As one of the authors of this paper was director for academic affairs of the university, it was his daily observation that HRM's main activities were limited to routine activities of recruitment where the office is represented by one of its members with no voting power in a recruiting committee mainly composed of department heads. The representative from the HRM office is secretary of the committee dedicated to compiling what has been said and taking the issue to the HRM office for further implementation. Final recruitment of academic staff is approved by the vice president for academic affairs. The HRM office has three case teams: capacity development and training, HR needs and recruitment and HR utilization and monitoring. As can be seen from the case teams, the HRM office is responsible for recruitment, retaining and development of HR which are basic for any HRM as mentioned above. However, the office is far from accomplishing these activities. This is because, for instance, the HRM office has never been engaged in needs assessment for planning future staffing for this activity is the role of deans of colleges and faculties. Besides, the staff development particularly enhancing the knowledge and skills of staff is overtaken by another office (Academic Development and Resource Center) which is under the vice president for academic affairs. Academic staff appraisal is also conducted independent of the HRM office by deans and department heads. The HRM office only asks academic staff appraisal when a certain academic staff needs promotion. This result is sent by the dean to HRM office annexed with other required documents and the HRM office communicates the decision made by the academic vice president to all units in the university. However, the office is active enough in following up and taking measures on academic staffs who left the university without fulfilling the procedure and on daily attendance of administrative staff. This practice makes the office a guard for leavers than managing the existing and future talents. Another element of interaction is the communication the HRM office has with other units. Attributed to its structural problems, there is poor communication between the HRM office and other units. For instance, it is common to see academic staffs who have stopped working in the university but whose salary are still transferred to their bank account.

Similarly, when we see the experience of HRM practice in Siberian Federal University, located in Krasnoyarsk Region, Russia, it has no as such different experience from the university mentioned above. Siberian Federal University has 36, 500 students and 3300 professorial staff. In this university, the HRM duty is mainly concentrated on compliance to Russian law on employment. In addition, the tasks and responsibilities of the HR function are confined to very routine activities such as keeping the tables of workdays and vacation times and has little interaction with staff in recruitment in any way except handing and taking documents. Concerning people development and training activities, there is no development or training activity organized by the HR department. In general, interfaces between general Management, HR and other functional departments are connected to filling-in weekly reports about what have been done in a week. And, in the process of interaction, there was no or little feedback on those reports.


Lessons learnt and way forward

From the experiences of the two universities, it is possible to deduce that HRM is dully immersed in working routine activities and no mention could be made as strategically relevant activity. It is also possible to say that HRM offices in both universities are not empowered in terms of structure and are serving as mediators which in fact are adding layer of bureaucracy to the system between the university management and faculties. Positioned in the middle, where it has not as such significant decision making power, makes HRM office to be seen as unproductive. Despite the existence of solid literature in the area that shows HRM as the blood cell of any organization, it seems far from true in the two universities. In addition, literature from other countries also show similar experiences that supports our argument. For instance, Evans and Chun (2012) in their recent report indicated that public higher education (HE), unlike private industry, has been sluggish to realize the impact of strategic human resources on organizational success, despite the fact that human capital investments represent the largest expenditure in today's. In general, strategic HRM - aligning the management of HR with the strategic content of the business and HR strategy on one hand and designing and implementing a set of proactive HR polices to ensure an organization's human capital contributes to the achievements of its corporate objectives (Walker, 1992 and David, Chin and Victor, 2002 in Muogbo, 2013) on the other hand is overlooked in both universities. Then, the question is, if HRM needs to contribute to the above mentioned strategic roles, how should the interaction with other units in universities be organized? What mechanisms should be deployed that are suitable to HE context? How can HRM attract the university management and academics to show its irreplaceable place? How can HRM be a useful instrument in the face of budget cuts and external pressures on universities? In this regard, many puzzling issues could be added to the list and in fact it is hard to suggest a panacea to all these problems. However, from the theoretical views of HRM's interaction in university that we mentioned in the aforementioned section of this paper, we need to indicate some issues that need to be considered as a way forward to advance HRM's function in universities.

First of all, it should be underlined that strategic HRM is an important and indispensable tool for any organization or institutions performance and for any organization or institution that wants to gain competitive advantages over others (Muogbo, 2013). In this regard, HR's strategic contribution to university-wide organization development is delineated in the areas of strategic training and development, employee relations, performance evaluation, leadership development, and employee assistance programs (Evans & Chun, 2012). Particularly, in a university, HRM could play a significant role in managing talent and performance of staff by developing polices of HRD. HR needs to portray itself as a significant body part in university and to do so needs change on HR thinking and its operation. It is because strategic HRM emphasizes the need for HR plans and strategies to be formulated within the context of overall organizational strategies and objectives, and be responsive to the changing nature of the organization’s external environment (Manning, 2010).

HR needs to appear as strategic partner and decision maker. It needs to contribute in clearly defining tools that will help guide leadership, appraisal, and other activities. It needs to show concrete results through evidence and should look beyond confining itself to guarding government decrees and regulations. HR needs to deploy systems that preserve precious talents. Many educators assert that talent management should be the priority agendum for HRM in universities. For instance, according to Böckelmann, Reif, and Fröhlich (2010), universities can only develop in a planned strategic direction if individual professors, the research staff and the employees in administration at least partially align themselves with the institution’s goals. To these scholars, HRM is essential and needs to include: strategic recruitment of staff, professionally maintained recruitment techniques, transparent career options, competencies to use modern instruments of HRD and systems of payment and incentives to sensibly reward performance. Seen against these strategic issues, HRM in HE institutions seems a long to go. However, HR offices and its staff cannot change these bold strategic objectives unless it is supported by senior and middle management in and outside university. So, we believe that unless there is a shift in thinking from university leaders, it will be mere rhetoric to expect HR to appear as strategic partner. The leaders need not only appreciate HR's role but also need to deploy appropriate infrastructure and fund. HR needs to get appropriate structural place, as we mentioned above, and empowerment. Hence, HRM's interaction with other units in University could be strengthened if and only if HRM gets its proper recognition and decision making power.



In this chapter, we have shown that HRM has an indispensable role for the effectiveness and efficiency of universities. We believe that the heyday of HRM is coming as universities these days are struggling to realign resources and programs to fulfill their educational mission on one hand and comply to external pressures on the other. In addition, universities are in pressure to maintain their talents in this mobile world that particularly needs strategic approach of HRM. We have also shown the theoretical roles and interactions HRM needs to have in universities. Attempt was also made to show HRM practices in universities by taking two cases and lessons were drawn that implied the need for shift in HRM thinking and operation. HRM needs to get appropriate attention and place from concerned bodies. Particularly, we underlined that if HR has to contribute to today's HE, it needs to be transformed from routine HR operation to strategic HR.



Armstrong, M. (2003). A handbook of human resource management practice. Kogan Page Limited.

Böckelmann C., Reif, L. and Fröhlich, M. (2010). Human Resources Management. In H, Jeroen & P. Attila (Eds.), Higher Education Management and Development Compendium for Managers (159-173). Münster: Waxmann Verlag GmbH.

Burke, J.C. (2002). Funding public colleges and universities for performance: Popularity, problems, and prospects. Rockefeller Institute.

Evans A. & Chun, E. (2012). Creating a tipping point: Strategic Human Resources in higher education. San Francisco: Wiley Periodicals, Inc.

Lipsky, M. (1980). Street level bureaucrats. Nova York: Russel Sage.

Manning, K. (2010). Strategic Human Resource Management And The Australian Public Sector Transylvanian Review of Administrative Sciences, No. 30E/2010 pp. 150-161 http://www.rtsa.ro/en/files/TRAS%20-%2030E%20-%2011%20-%20MANNING.pdf

Muogbo, S. U. (2012). The Impact of Strategic Human Resource Management on Nigeria Universities (A Study of Government-Owned and Private Universities in South East Nigeria) http://psrcentre.org/images/extraimages/513668.pdf

Zaugg, R.J., Blum, A., Thom, N. (2001). Sustainability in Human Resource Management. Evaluation Report. Survey in European Companies and Institutions. Arbeitsbericht des Instituts für Organisation und Personal der Universität Bern und des eidgenössischen Personalam


There has been error in communication with Booktype server. Not sure right now where is the problem.

You should refresh this page.