In this human resources section we will consider not just those aspects of existing functions of the human resources department but also the human factors – opportunities, demands, perceptions and barriers of cultures and climates within sector organisations that affect the abilities or willing engagement of staff to become involved in business and community engagement.
Culture and perception of value
The embedding BCE project team was immediately struck by the perceptions of business and community engagement activities on the part of both those involved and equally by those who were not engaged or involved in it.
Those who are involved in it value its worth, can point to successes in terms of generated income and the part it plays in widening participation and engaging new communities and can show impacts on the well-being and social cohesion of communities both local and elsewhere. They can show how external perceptions of and attitudes to the institution have changed for the better because of business and community engagement and in the higher education sector it is often quoted as a way to lose the ‘ivory tower’ image of universities.
However, in many HE institutions there remains a perception amongst some staff that business and community engagement is not of the same value as teaching and learning that leads to a degree or as pure research. "It’s not proper research" was one comment about applied research undertaken in partnership with a commercial company.
Some of this may be attributed to terms used in the past to describe business and community engagement. ‘Third stream’ tends to suggest an order and perhaps that the first two streams of teaching and learning and pure research should be considered more worthy. The word ‘third’ can suggest a poorer partner – used in terms such as ‘third world’.
However in part the perception may also be because, unlike in teaching and learning and pure research, there are no well-established measures of success or routes to personal progression. Many practitioners reported the difficulty of securing promotion or of evidencing past achievement to move between institutions in a way that they knew would be acceptable and valued.
The perception of the value, or lack of it, placed on BCE-related activity had been identified throughout all of the HE partners involved in the embedding BCE project and a solution was being sought, however this was likely to involve something of a cultural change.
Working within a capitalist marketplace
One of the issues is that of working with companies motivated by making a profit. Many people join public sector organisations because they do not feel comfortable with a capitalist society and so the increased prioritisation to work with profit-making companies is a challenge.
Another potential barrier is that traditionally universities have published research findings in journals and both universities and staff are measured in part by the amount of such publications and, also in part, by their worth, which is judged according to which journal publishes the work. Where private companies are involved, particularly where they are part funding research work by way of cash injection or staff time, even where they have agreed to results being published for the greater good, they usually want to have some commercial edge – a period during which they can exploit the results of the research before any publication of results opens the research to their competitors.
A criticism of universities by companies that the embedding BCE team spoke to for background material, was that staff can sometimes appear to have no understanding of this need to exploit research before competitors. In one or two instances companies reported annoyance at university staff showing contempt of their need to make a profit. Whilst the universities concerned will remain anonymous it is only fair to point out that they were not amongst the partner universities of the project.
New ways of working – old terms and conditions
An issue identified in further education was the inflexible terms and conditions of ‘traditional’ lecturing staff. Staff were measured against a requirement to teach a specified minimum number of contact hours during an academic year. Against these conditions there is no scope to offset contact hours against time spent in travelling to and from a class or meeting off-site.
In addition, under the traditional terms and conditions it was expected that the vast majority of teaching would be undertaken during the normal working day, not including nights and weekends. This made it harder for lecturing staff under these terms to be as flexible as might be required to service work-based learning.
Consequently in further education most work-based learning is delivered and assessed by either staff recruited specifically to different terms and conditions to standard lecturing staff, or by third party sub-contractors. Where these are third party suppliers rather than college staff this can lead to further issues of access to IT systems, previously discussed in this resource. The easy option is to use freely available commercial webspace for materials rather than official college systems such as VLEs, leading to issues of accessibility, reduced features and interactive content and, to the college, loss of the IP and ownership of materials for re-use.
The human resources function
It was common for representatives of human resources teams in the embedding BCE project to claim no knowledge of business and community engagement. In fact some were nervous at being asked to take part, thinking that they had nothing to offer the project. When recruiting staff their main consideration was whether the post was funded and had been approved. Once that condition was met, standard recruitment procedures were invoked to fill the post. Unless there were other arrangements to speed up the process – such as a list of potential short term contract staff such as exists in further education for adult learning teachers – there was no way of expediting any requirement for a speedy response to recruitment. In this case business and community engagement processes were not so much embedded as totally absent and the successful and timely outcome reliant on a match between the requirement and one of a limited number of existing options.
Business and community engagement by human resources practitioners
At Glamorgan University one member of the human resources team was involved in a voluntary capacity raising awareness of employment legislation and responsibilities such as equal opportunities within the local business community. This involved giving presentations and attending meetings at either individual employers or at regional special interest meetings.