Thinking differently about recruiting the HE workforce

Rebecca Jarrett
Cranfield University

February 2021

As I write this blog, I am struck by the seismic changes that the higher education (HE) sector has made in response to Covid, with established models for education and employment going through a paradigm shift. These resulting new practices, new ways of working and of educating students have shifted our thinking towards recruitment at rapid speed.

That being said, the UK HE sector was already facing changes from a myriad of sources, such as the uncertainty of Brexit and how it would affect the supply of talented people (students and staff) coming to and from Europe. Similarly, the drive for improved use of technology to maximise the learning experience of our students existed pre-Covid, which would also affect the skill-set needed by our workforce. The sector was already tackling under-representation of women and BAME communities, remuneration, changes to pension schemes and pay disputes, to name just a few of the challenges.

Universities in the UK are not the only organisations trying to meet the challenges of Brexit, the promotion of diversity and inclusion, or the leverage of technology, however, the current world order has brought these challenges into sharp focus across the UK HE sector.

To help us meet the challenges that we face, we are reliant on our people and I believe we could strengthen our position by thinking more creatively about how we define our ‘workforce’. This blog shares my experience of defining a flexible resourcing model to meet the needs of a new, innovative university (MK:U). MK:U is a proposed new model undergraduate university with innovative courses designed to fill urgent skills gaps in digital and technology industries across the UK.

The blog will suggest three areas that could help equip universities with the wide range of skills and capabilities we need for an uncertain and changeable future: 1) re-thinking where we look for skills and capabilities; 2) designing a tailored attraction strategy; 3) reconsidering the selection process.

Re-think where we look for skills and capabilities

Firstly, let’s think creatively about where we can find the skills and expertise we need, and how we engage with individuals beyond a traditional employment relationship: We need to strike a balance between creating a flexible workforce and avoiding negative associations linked to precarious zero hours contracts, the gig economy and the perceived casualization of the workforce. 

The key aim in a healthy institution that is investing in its workforce, is to share the balance of power between the organisation and the person you are seeking to engage. For example, zero hours contracts (where an employee is obligated to work hours allocated to them without choice) is an unbalanced power relationship. Mutual flexibility is one way of overcoming the balance of power issue, such as through minimum hours or annualised hours contracts. Some people may wish to combine a portfolio career with caring responsibilities, so evening or ad hoc work might be just what they are seeking. Others may be able to balance days working with students against their employer’s CSR or volunteering policy. A forward-looking institution understands that this individual, flexible approach will bring greater loyalty and commitment to the institution in return.[i]

Some of these creative models can be seen at Cranfield University. The University has a rich history of partnering with industry to foster innovation in an education setting. We draw upon a flexible network of partners, such as visiting fellows and industry professionals, “associates”, and dual career professionals. The model of recruitment for the new undergraduate university, MK:U, is explicit about recognising capability from different sources and building a flexible network of people that can ebb and flow with the rhythm of organisational and individual needs.

Design a tailored attraction strategy

Having identified a flexible network of capabilities, we need to attract people to work with us. Have we asked ourselves, what would their needs and requirements be? Have we articulated why people might want to join us, and what the benefits to them might be? Part of this speaks to the flexibility and balance of power that I mentioned above. My experience is that by identifying the motivations for people wanting to engage with education, such as altruism, financial reasons, or something else, we can create tailored attraction strategies, drawing on the principles of customer needs analysis. These strategies can be centred on the relevant value proposition. I have found that another important element of this approach is to think carefully about the language we use in our advertising, as well as the channels we use to promote opportunities. If we think we offer an attractive place of employment that meets potential employees’ needs, then we ought to tell people! In the same way as a marketing strategy for a new product launch would be designed and promoted on a range of channels, such as social media and online industry jobs boards and networks. This approach will result in an ability to attract a broader and deeper range of expertise and experiences.

At Cranfield University and MK:U, we are starting on this journey, using values-based language and tools such as textio and gender decoder to foster inclusive and gender neutral language. We are directing our attraction strategies towards encouraging under-represented groups to apply to work with us, and this is more than just including an equality statement in our job adverts. We have made a commitment always to consider flexible working arrangements for our roles – whether this be hours, pattern, or location of work. Making this commitment to inclusive working practices is enabling us to attract a more diverse range of candidates. We demonstrated success in a campaign within Cranfield’s School of Water, Energy and Environment by paying attention to the following 4 areas 1) we advertised for multiple roles simultaneously which has been shown to increase the likelihood of underrepresented groups being appointed (Chang et al., 2020; Mervis, 2020);  2) we broadened our selection criteria to make them more general which we have found encourages increased applications from groups that are underrepresented at the university. Culture and gender may cause people to self-select out of the recruitment process if they feel they do not meet 100% of the criteria (Kandola, 2018); 3) we paid careful attention to the way we articulated the opportunity so that it resonated with the widest possible group of potential candidates, and 4) we created a story around the work that the School is doing and the part that individuals could play alongside the Cranfield community. This holistic approach resulted in a positive recruitment campaign, with three out of five appointments being made to women in STEM subjects.

Re-consider the selection process

The final stage of the cycle is thinking differently about how we evaluate people during the selection process. If we are to think creatively about where to find skills and capabilities, we also need to think differently about how we assess people and the extent to which they have the potential and transferrable skills. In many cases this may mean moving away from relying on traditional academic measures of success, such as citations and research publications, which have been criticised for being narrowly-defined proxy measures for excellence (Alvesson, Gabriel and Paulsen, 2017). It could further be argued that these traditional measures of success are excluding swathes of the talent pool who have not had access to the opportunities for creating research publications, or indeed a traditional education. This includes academics who have taken a career break, from lower socio-economic backgrounds, or who have moved into academia as a second career.

Importantly, the ‘essential criteria’ for a role should be given careful consideration. Often institutions’ unrealistic expectations result in them looking for elusive ‘unicorns’ via lengthy job descriptions which contain exhaustive lists of ‘essential criteria’. This approach causes some people to self-select out of a recruitment process, at the same time as anchoring the recruiting panel in unrealistic expectations (O’Meara, Culpepper and Templeton, 2020; Ryan and Ployhart, 2000).

Taking the lead from the process used by industry and start-ups to source talent could be a good starting place for the HE sector to learn new recruitment strategies. At MK:U and Cranfield we have experience of appointing multiple roles using group assessment centres, drawing on the principles of organisational psychology and evidence taken from sectors outside of HE. This is just one example of how industry partners can provide insight throughout the different phases of the recruitment, attraction and selection processes described above.

Let’s start doing what we can to be more innovative and rethinking the way we attract and select talent to help us meet the many challenges and changes experienced by the HE sector today.

Rebecca Jarrett

Rebecca Jarrett, Head of Resourcing at Cranfield University contributes expertise to the Centre for Innovation in Learning and Education (CILE). The joint virtual Centre aims to develop new knowledge in innovative education, business-engaged educational design and innovative delivery modes in undergraduate provision within UK Higher Education. Through joint research, the sharing of best practice and the design of innovative education pathways, Aston and Cranfield Universities are supporting the proposed development of a new model STEM-focused university in Milton Keynes.

This blog has been produced for the Centre for Innovation and Learning in Education, a Catalyst OfS funded project.


Alvesson, M., Gabriel, Y. and Paulsen, R. (2017) Return To Meaning a social science with something to say.First. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Chang, E.H., Kirgios, E.L., Rai, A. and Milkman, K.L. (2020) ‘The Isolated Choice Effect and Its Implications for Gender Diversity in Organizations’, Management Science, 66(6), pp. 2752–2761.

Kandola, B. (2018) Racism at work. The danger of indifference. Oxford: Pearn Kandola Publishing.

Mervis, J. (2020) NIH’s new cluster hiring program aims to help schools attract diverse faculty., AAAS Science Available at: (Accessed: 27 February 2020).

O’Meara, K.A., Culpepper, D. and Templeton, L.L. (2020) ‘Nudging Toward Diversity: Applying Behavioral Design to Faculty Hiring’, Review of Educational Research, 90(3), pp. 311–348.

Ryan, A.M. and Ployhart, R.E. (2000) ‘Applicants’ perceptions of selection procedures and decisions: A critical review and agenda for the future’, Journal of Management, 26(3), pp. 565–606.

[i] The following articles provide a wider reading around this topic: accessed 21 February 2021, accessed 21 February 2021


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