For many years now universities have looked outside themselves for certain material goods and services – for construction, branding, and more recently, catering, to name a few areas. Nowadays universities are turning to external organisations to provide ‘softer’ resources, from coaching and leadership training to systems change reviews, data management, campaigns, and market analysis.
In this article, I discuss the pros and cons of using external organisations in three key areas: for recruitment, for REF consultancies, and for external examiner roles.
Outsourcing recruitment is a tricky area when it comes to academia. Academics are usually very carefully selected for an unusual skillset that combines research, teaching, communication, professionalism and collegiality. This last skill is one of the key reasons why external contractors are unlikely to ever fully control academic appointment processes – academic posts are still often long-term positions, and the low turnover of staff in such positions means that the selection of individuals to new posts is critically important to existing staff.
But for both temporary posts and senior managerial roles in universities, or academic posts that involve high levels of managerial responsibility, it is increasingly the case that external contractors are used – if not to take over the entire process, at least to do the initial sifting and/or headhunting. The selection of candidates to temporary posts can be a drain on academic staff time and therefore not cost-effective for an institution. High-level posts involving the selection of candidates with advanced managerial or strategic skills can also present difficulties for a selection panel comprised of academic staff, who may not themselves have the same skill set that is required for the position.
External consultants who have cross-institutional (and possibly cross-sector) experience will have an overview of strategy and leadership skills that are required. They can also take internal soundings and assess existing workplace culture from a perspective not afforded to those who are the midst of it.
For some years now universities have run their own internal or ‘mock’ research assessments, in the years preceding a REF assessment, enlisting senior or even retired staff at other institutions to read and report on a given unit of assessment’s research return as it stands. This has been controversial at times, particularly where a single individual has been contracted to report on a larger number of research outputs and activities than would actually be the case in a REF assessment, or where his or her expertise is not an obvious match with the expertise of the staff under review.
Universities need to ensure that such exercises do not have the unintended consequences of demotivating or alienating staff, and so should choose reviewers with great care, preferably through consultation with the unit’s own director of research. The outcomes of such reviews should also be disseminated wisely, and care taken with any use of such data in annual assessments or other areas relating to performance and promotion.
That said, universities have found that such external interventions can have the benefit of providing a fresh perspective on the work underway, and can provide a subject-specific overview that would be difficult or impossible to acquire by internal consultation.
Like REF reviewers, external examiners are drawn from the existing academic community in an informal network of academic exchange. Currently, external examiners are mid- to senior-level academic staff at other UK HE institutions, appointed on a 3-5 year cycle to ensure that another institution’s assessment procedure meets subject benchmarks. The system as it currently stands operates by devolving the selection process for external examiners to individual subject areas and/or departments. This is an effective way of ensuring that examiners’ expertise is a close match for the programmes and assessment being delivered.
While this long-standing, word-of-mouth arrangement has worked effectively for many years, there are now attempts to regularise and standardise the system. Some subject areas (through their professional societies) now hold databases of external examiners. Most universities now make sure that their external examiner receives some sort of training about in-house assessment. In addition, between 2016 and 2021 the HEA (Higher Education Academy) has been commissioned by HEFCE to develop generic professional development packages for external examiners.
So in certain areas that are largely to do with staffing, assessment, and performance management, ‘light-touch’ or mixed consultancy approaches may be beneficial. Finally, don’t forget that increasingly universities are getting in on the consultancy game, forming their own consultancy centres, and giving academics a chance to sign up to offer consultancy services to the outside world in a range of areas – from providing editing services to expert reports. Strategic consultancy, it seems, is a two-way street.