· 7 min read · Features

When is a business not a business? HR at Regent's University

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Regent’s University’s HRD explains how it is coping with Brexit and other people-related challenges

When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life. So goes the famous Samuel Johnson quote. And Sue Shutter feels the same about Regent’s University London, the city’s only independent and not-for-profit university, of which she holds the dual role of HR director and pro-vice-chancellor. “If there’s a day I step into these grounds and don’t think ‘wow’, that’s the day I need to go,” she says.

It’s not hard to see why. As its name suggests, Regent’s University London is nestled in the heart of London’s Regent’s Park. With its red-brick buildings, lush flowerbeds and manicured, landscaped lawns, it’s an oasis in the middle of a busy city. No wonder it attracts students from around the world, with more than 140 nationalities represented in its 3,600-strong student base.

As a private university, Regent’s commands higher fees from its students and attracts a proportion of wealthy individuals (the words ‘Saudi prince’ may have been uttered during HR magazine’s visit). But as a non-profit institution, these fees are channelled back into the university to cover its running costs, and allowing it to offer a more personalised service to its students. The average class size is 13 and an effort is made to make each class as diverse as possible, with a range of different nationalities.

Regent’s is one of only a small number of private universities in the UK, and has only been an accredited university since 2013 (before then, it was Regent’s College London). It is a founding member of the Independent Universities Group, which aims to be “the Russell Group of the alternative sector”. Shutter describes it as “boutique and special”, adding that “independence is really important to us”. “It gives us freedom and flexibility, and in today’s world and market, being agile is key to success,” she says.

Shutter joined Regent’s in 2008 as HR director, being promoted into the pro-vice-chancellor role alongside it once it became a university in 2013. She left school at 15 – “secondary education wasn’t fun for me” – to join a local authority as an accounts clerk before finding out she was much more interested in personnel. So there’s something pleasing in Shutter now playing a key strategic role in running a higher education institute. She’s also held HR director roles in the NHS, at a now disbanded Primary Care Trust, and at Oxford City Council.

“When I first started here, I came in using words like ‘business’ and ‘customer’, and it was like a taboo,” she recalls. “I was told: ‘We are not a business and students are not customers.’ That has had to change because we are a business; our business is education and our students have high expectations. That service culture is really quite important.”

Central to Shutter’s HR strategy are the ‘five Is’ that are also the hallmark of the university’s overall student proposition. They are: intimate, intensive, interconnected, industry-focused and international.

Interconnected and international both recognise Regent’s diversity. Not only are there those 140-plus student nationalities, but more than 30% of the 700-odd members of academic and administrative staff are European – which of course, as if we could talk of anything else, throws the issue of Brexit into uncomfortably sharp relief.

Brexit is going to be so challenging,” Shutter acknowledges. “We’ve tried to get reassuring messages out to staff and students that nothing is going to change overnight. We need to start lobbying to make sure there’s still going to be free movement of labour.” She adds that staff have been raising concerns about potential changes to employment regulation and asking the vice-chancellor to contact ministers. “There has been united support – a sense of ‘this is so wrong, what can we do about it?’,” she says. “It’s beyond understanding and comprehension here not to appreciate what you get from the diversity of students and staff and what you learn from it.”

In keeping with that appreciation of cultural diversity, students are encouraged to have “global networks” of friends and all staff are offered access to free language training (Regent’s teaches nine languages). The university also has links with other higher education institutions overseas, and welcomes more than 2,000 students every year through study abroad programmes, summer schools and short courses.

While the uncertain Brexit situation is “slightly scary”, one positive is that Regent’s highly international model means it already has “exemplary” processes in place for immigration and Visas, as one of its biggest risks would be losing immigration status for students or staff. “So, if Visas do change for European staff, we have everything in place and could expand it if necessary,” says Shutter. However, she is concerned that student numbers may be impacted going forwards, and that the university may need to refocus its model on UK student recruitment, an area which it hasn’t touched on to date.

Being ‘interconnected’ also means the HR team puts a lot of energy into bringing people together, whether at a conference, workshop or regular strategic update. Crucially, that doesn’t just mean permanent staff members either – at the staff awards, for example, the university offers a Contractor of the Year award. “The contractor that won it this year said it was the first experience they had ever had of being a contractor and feeling as valued as a member of staff,” says Shutter.

As well as these more informal gatherings, Shutter also likes to bring multidisciplinary teams together to deliver projects. “This year, I wanted to review how we looked at academic promotions, so I got a cross-section of staff from all levels together to work through it,” she says. “It’s now in place and people feel that sense of ownership because of how we engaged them in the development. The smallness of the workforce enables us to have that relationship.”

The size of the organisation also enables one of the other Is – ‘intimate’. While for students that means having small class sizes and high contact hours, for staff it means HR taking what Shutter describes as a “person-centred approach, where individuals matter”. A central component of this is the democratisation of coaching.

Shutter first experienced the power of coaching while she was head of HR at Oxford City Council, going through her first strike. “The strike shut down the city, as it occupied Oxford’s park and ride,” she recalls. “It was quite a frightening experience as I didn’t know if the politicians would continue to support me, but it was also a big learning experience. It was my first experience of preparing for tough negotiations with trade unions, and I was given a coach to help me prepare. I discovered coaching was such a powerful tool.”

Her belief in the benefits coaching can bring has seen a group of academic and professional services staff, including Shutter, being trained in executive mentoring and coaching. Line managers are also trained to act as coaches and mentors. “That is now the foundation of how we develop and retain talent,” says Shutter. “It has had huge benefits for the organisation. We have lost people as we’ve found we have coached some people out of the organisation. Some people had a problem with that, but I think if it was right for the individual, it was probably right for the organisation as well. I’m proud of the people who were coached out as they’ve gone on to have fantastic careers. We also have people coming back – they gain experience elsewhere and then bring it back to us.”

Those academics who have been through coaching are more likely to get promoted internally, Shutter adds. “One of the difficulties with academic staff is they can be great academics and teachers, but there’s a big challenge when they become managers of people, budgets and resources,” she says. “We have a lot of management programmes, but coaching has been the most successful with academics.”

Development is very much focused around the ‘how’ as much as the ‘what’. So important are behaviours that when interviewing for management positions, candidates are asked to take part in role-plays based on the desired behaviours. “We want to see how they would handle difficult conversations,” says Shutter. “Academics hate it and they try to get out of it, but having gone through it, they confirm they have learnt and seen the benefits. And we find we are recruiting better-quality staff as a result.”

The ‘hows’ are also threaded into Regent’s performance management framework – a nine-box grid approach that looks at “what we achieve and how”. Shutter has also begun linking pay to performance, something the university’s board were keen to introduce, although academics have not been its biggest cheerleaders.

“Last year we introduced a bonus for those who were excelling and I would like us to get better at recognising high performance and rewarding it appropriately,” says Shutter. “But the academic debates I’ve had in getting it this far have taken quite a while. From the academics, it’s about how we can assess performance. My argument is that an academic can measure student performance, so therefore we should be able to measure and evaluate how a member of staff is delivering.”

Despite the resistance to performance-related pay, last year Shutter achieved a 96% return rate for development plans and ratings, “so academics are fully participating”. Would she ever consider scrapping performance ratings, given the trend in some larger organisations? “I hope it becomes a normal part of a manager and team member’s relationship to talk about performance and coaching. While the formality in some organisations is going, and I can see that being the journey here, it has to be as you get better at [the basics of performance management].”

In her position as pro-vice-chancellor, Shutter plays a role beyond HR at Regent’s, and she also sits on the university’s internationalisation group and its senate (the academic decision-making body). “I know this business very well, so I have an opinion on how and where we are marketing or how the student experience should be delivered,” she says, explaining how the roles complement each other.

“I have more of a strategic role outside the confines of HR, but my heart is in HR, and every decision that is taken corporately has a people implication. The success of any business is due to its people.”

The dual roles also mean her HR team are fully up to date with the directorate’s strategic thinking, enabling them to business-partner more effectively. “It means when they are going out, they are knowledgeable about what’s important to Regent’s right now as a business, rather than just coming with the ‘HR’ role,” Shutter says. “They truly can be business partners.”

And with what she calls a “huge change agenda” to deal with, Regent’s needs excellent, enabling HR to survive and thrive. “We have to remain agile and keep up the student experience, while having challenging times with student recruitment,” says Shutter. “Our people have got to work together and maintain the level of student experience, probably with fewer funds. I’ve seen it in local government and in health, and I think it’s just hitting higher education now. There’s more competition and the world is changing. It’s important not to be complacent, to know our markets and to take it to places we haven’t been before.”