Colleges are replacing human resources professionals with non- specialists or contracting out the function, further education managers heard this week.
Specialist HR staff are invaluable in negotiating and settling disputes involving staff and resolving issues of discipline or performance, according to the Association of Managers in Education. However, anecdotal evidence suggests that employers are laying off their in-house HR teams which are seen as expensive and possibly not essential to colleges' core function.
David Green, director of employment services for the AMiE and the Association for College Management, said this was a false economy since HR staff understand employment law and college procedures, so issues tend to be resolved quickly and cost effectively.
"Some colleges see it as a way of cutting costs by putting in people that are not of the same seniority as HR directors and managers, or they hand the HR function to another manager so that they double up in their responsibilities," he said.
"In some colleges there is not a good enough understanding of the value of a professional human resources function. If colleges take out professional staff and put in people that don't understand employment law or trade unions, then they will end up with more problems.
"If a college is involved in, say, a redundancy involving compromise agreements, the absence of professional HR staff means going backwards and forwards to solicitors, which can cost a fortune."
The AMiE plans to keep a record of employers who no longer have professional HR staff and assess the impact on employment relations.
A University and College Union spokesman said: "There is a great deal of statute and case law that governs industrial relations and the rights and responsibilities of trade union lay officials that require adequate understanding, interpretation and operation, which presumably is the province of HR professionals."
The AMiE policy forum, held yesterday, also discussed key policies affecting FE, including the economy. A paper to the forum said colleges needed the freedom to respond quickly, nimbly and appropriately to local needs but too often were "hemmed in" by bureaucracy.
The recession did present opportunities to providers, it said, but these may go begging because the forthcoming machinery of government changes looked set to "maintain the complex bureaucracy that surrounds colleges' work", thereby limiting institutional flexibility.
The paper also set out the association's opposition to "micromanagement" of colleges and proposed a model for autonomy. It said the role of colleges should include identifying and responding to local needs, managing performance, taking action on the basis of self-assessment of performance, and helping to devise and adopt an ethical code.
The role of government should be confined to determining funding and broad policy direction, it said. It should set out a small number of high-level measures to monitor and judge college provision, student achievement and value for money. It should also ensure effective inspection of colleges, with a light touch for strong institutions.