Although the human resources function at academic institutions is very similar in content terms to that in the corporate world, it is also very different when considering the contextual differences, especially when it comes to retaining and developing academic leadership


With increasing numbers of ageing senior academics at tertiary institutions making their way to retirement internationally, we’re losing large numbers of the world’s academic expertise and leadership. This has become a concern for HR departments at universities worldwide.

“Higher education HR departments at universities will have to find ways to work with accelerated new and innovative processes to optimise development,” says Amanda Glaeser, Executive HR Director at the University of the Western Cape (UWC), in an exclusive interview with Leadership magazine.

She states that the key to success is to have the key academic leadership and professional support leaders to lead the activities that will result in the success of a new generation of academic and professional staff—HR is the partner to facilitate processes and provide support. “At UWC, we are fortunate to have a new generation of leaders who are stepping in to do so.” She says.

Do you think that HR is visible enough in the higher education sector?

At UWC, the Executive HR Director is fortunate to form part of the Executive Management Committee, this makes HR visible and part of the core discussions pertaining to the university. Unfortunately, some other universities have this specialist role reporting via a different function or general senior role, thus not forming part of the centre where decisions are made—I think this design impacts negatively on the HR profession with regards to working in a fully contextual way.

It’s not necessarily the best for higher education that the HR function is not always optimally applied and used; this may be as a result of a history, where expectations were only for the transactional deliverables in an HR division.

How does UWC go about creating excitement around leadership?

Our context naturally provides the anticipation of possible disruption in these times, creating many sleepless nights. The ”Fees must Fall” (FmF) phenomena demands great and unique leadership thinking; it requires input and influencing of a nature that is uniquely emerging and may not even exist in a tangible form.

The environment is unpredictable and requires adaptive thinking - the” how” of leadership outstrips the ”what”. When developing leadership competence, there is a need to identify one’s own contextual competencies to bring about the desired result; the existing leadership models and formulas are unlikely to produce the desired results in new and emerging situations. For adults, the excitement in learning lies in the level of participation to find new solutions via collective insights that lead to breakthroughs by design. This is how our VC and Rector, Professor Tyrone Pretorius, led us through the FmF challenges last year—mindfully and purposefully, driven by concerns for everyone’s wellbeing.

If you work with adults, especially knowledge workers, learning must be voluntary. You can’t force people to acquire new competencies in order to keep up with the pace of change, they need to have the inherent desire to change with the world to remain relevant. The uptake of leadership modules that are available at UWC has not been as high as it can be, however, those who participated fully have said that these programmes have changed them, some significantly, so this is very rewarding feedback.

What is UWC doing to develop and retain talent?

We have various processes to support people, ranging from onboarding practices, development discussions and finally, individualised plans to optimise individual progress, but this only happens when the line leader and the individual participate with equal commitment in using our processes, of which the Performance Development System is one. We believe learning happens when individuals are determined to succeed, continuously improve and have an innate desire to help others. HR facilitates and provides support, but is only the energiser in the process—the formula for success is with the line leaders who are challenged with many demands, so it remains a matter for great focus in HR.

Our rewards model identifies key aspects that are important to reinforce our culture, and we are currently reviewing our value proposition to accommodate new needs and renewal for future generations.

We have also learnt that people don’t just work for the money. We compare nationally, internationally and with corporates in order to know exactly what our affordable positioning is.

Our lecturers identify students in their postgraduate years, channel them into academic careers and develop them as part of our Talent Stewardship Programme (TSP).

Is there a difference in HR, comparing the corporate sector and the education environment?

The workplace activities are so different, yet there are issues of content around human resources that are very similar everywhere. However, it changes when you start talking about context—for example, people’s world views, the concept of leadership, diversity and the workplace culture are vastly different. One big difference is that the university is all about people. There’s nothing else to compete with; the knowledge workers, students and professional support staff provide a web of diversity of many dimensions, which is not evident in many workplaces. Each workplace has a purpose: to understand why things are done in a particular way. Universities have high degrees of individual thinkers who need to be led in order to also align their personal goals with that of their university’s. A university’s goal is to create new knowledge through research, apply it to teaching and learning, and has, as a result, produced new generations of thinkers and inventors whilst also reaching out to communities for progress towards a better world. The pace is slower and, contextually, we are looking to ”gold collar” workers, with much autonomy and freedom of thinking to deliver to the academic project. The intersection between academic staff, students and professional staff, who have an enabling role, can be a complex scenario, and therein lies many challenges. UWC has seven faculties with different views of what the priorities might be. They are mainly all deep and narrow specialists, so it’s far more complex than in a corporate environment.

Technology has brought with it a new speed in working environments and academic institutions need to catch up with technology. What are the challenges in this regard?

There are many challenges, but the core issue is that HR needs to start patterning the work activities so that people can embrace both planned and emerging ideas. The critical role that HR should play is to help facilitate needed change in a positive way. It is about playing a firmer change agent role to move towards the future and help people go through that cycle of change with optimal positivity. If you don’t have a highly technological, cutting edge environment, you’ll have difficulty attracting the talented millennials, who see it as beneficial to work with the latest technology. Universities are now planning to offer undergraduate courses completely online.

This creates the impression that we may not need everything that’s currently in practice, and that requires creative thinking and open-mindedness towards change. We can’t take it for granted that everyone will think and believe that we’re going to work better and smarter because of technology. People, more often than not, feel threatened that their skills may become obsolete.

The human challenge may well be more engagement by working in networks and teams; this can bring about a collective understanding of how we meet the future with the same goals in mind.

Government’s nGAP programme is aimed at ensuring we retain skills among education staff. Can you share your views on this initiative?

There’s a high number of retirement at our South African universities, and that’s where nGAP comes in. Government recognised this crisis and started the nGAP initiative, which will make a big difference.

At UWC, we have introduced the Talent Stewardship Programme (TSP)—nGAP is an important component of it. We also have one other funder but require many more to help us reach our target. We have people from various backgrounds on the TSP, and it is HR’s role to design good processes and development programmes.

Our Deputy Vice-Chancellor Academic, Professor Vivienne Lawack, is driving the programme and HR has a supportive role.

The success formula remains—leaders developing leaders, it is not abdicated to a support division.

Do you believe that we will be able to retain skills through nGAP?

Undoubtedly. Look at human resource surveys: one of the biggest issues that always feature is that people feel unsure about their future in organisations.

We have to make it tangible for people and create ways to make it possible for them to move up the ranks at an accelerated pace. It has been said it takes 26 years to ‘make’ a professor, and that is too long. We’re seriously looking at accelerated plans to get people into key academic roles.

If you could add anything to the nGAP programme, what would that be?

It’s very important that we don’t just groom these candidates to be good academics, but also to become true leaders in academia. We really have to look at adding the people and leadership competencies to their development.

The younger generations aren’t necessarily interested in taking up leadership positions. They’ve learnt that those are tough jobs and they’re not readily volunteering.

They need a lot of encouragement and support to make it attractive for them to aspire to leadership roles.

What has UWC done to align itself with nGAP?

We are busy launching an institutional operating plan, but in the previous plan, before nGAP was introduced, we already identified that we needed a specific focus on talent development in order to build capabilities. We have good processes in place to do this.

We piloted it in the Law Faculty as an initiative of the dean in 2013 and it yielded excellent results. These programmes are more effective if leaders are actively involved, and that has been very successful.

This was before nGAP, and we’re now designing professional, accelerated programmes for these individuals. The more funding we can get for this, the more we can fill the South African academic trajectory with academic leaders.

What is the recipe for success to have staff look at HR in a positive light?

We need to balance the ambiguity of being consistent with measures of flexibility to enable the execution of faculty and divisional goals, thus we have a ‘can do’ attitude, which helps when some requests are not possible in a highly regulated governance system. We always try to remain supportive.

I do think our general climate view in the HR division is to be kinder than necessary, because everybody has their own struggles.

It’s important to have that climate, together with a sense of accountability.

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