On Christmas Eve the THES carried a story about some very specific criteria used by the University of Cambridge to appoint an internal candidate. There was consternation that the incredibly precise focus of the post would prohibit candidates (apart from one internal) to be appropriately skilled for the role in question. The fact that the start-date was in incredibly short succession to the publication of the advert also called into question the extent to which external parties were seriously being invited to apply.
Getting the balance right in a job description and person specification is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, clarity is needed so as not to mislead and indeed to accurately convey the strategic direction of research within any given Department. Yet on the other hand, to create such a narrow range of requirements and unrealistic timeframe for application and appointment, not only creates barriers to application, it creates reputational risk by sending out messages about any given institution’s willingness to engage with a broad range of candidates. Diversity considerations are rightly a central tenet of all Institutions’ strategic plans. We know about the paucity of representation within STEM Faculty. And whilst the Humanities fare better, complacency on the issue cannot be entertained.
The European Charter and Code for Researchers sets out clear expectations from a recruitment perspective as to best practice and fair behaviour in terms of attracting, retaining and developing research talent. Although the content would never be at odds with the Human Resources practices of UK Institutions, on a case by case basis, it is a useful checklist to ensure that advertising and indeed recruitment send out the right message about what an academic appointment in the UK entails.
Few senior academics would argue against the need for “open, efficient, transparent, supportive and internationally comparable recruitment procedures”, yet the extent to which this can be “tailored to each post,” particularly in very specific, niche areas of research is a difficult balance. Consecutive RAE and REF rounds are upping the scrutiny of research and its global relevance, which is, in turn, leading to more detailed strategy at a Faculty level and more focused recruitment. As often cited, the key lies in developing the research-talent pipeline internally, but the struggle to recruit diverse PHD-level students and the natural attrition caused by global mobility means this remains a tough strategy to pursue, even in the medium-term.
At Berwick Partners, the work that we do on academic appointments demonstrates that there is an increasing appetite to look globally to attract the best. Therefore, it is vital that recruitment demonstrates the extent to which posts in UK Institutions are comparable and competitive with their international counterparts. The Charter sets out guidelines for the recognition of mobility and qualifications and it is felt that international networks allow for an understanding of these factors. Yet salaries, CPD and teaching expectations (also criteria within the Charter) are more of a moveable feast and can end up being huge factors in the extent to which UK Institutions are attractive destinations, particularly when juxtaposed with our system of taxation and cost of living.
There is no easy solution and the possibility of our exit from the European Union only serves to further complicate the problem in that it invites the (rhetorical?) question in prospective applicants’ eyes as to how long we will remain comparable to our European and even international counterparts. As such, careful consideration should be urged when making academic appointments. UK Institutions should be congratulated on their global ambitions and indeed their zest to ensure that there is greater diverse representation amongst Faculty. Yet, our ability to attract international talent is a critical element of this and our ability to be accordingly competitive cannot be overlooked.
Liz James is a Principal Consultant in the Education Practice at Berwick Partners.