Exploratory Study into the Link between Reward and Academic Employee Engagement in Higher Education

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


This research has contributed to knowledge by conceptualising Academic Employee Engagement (AEE) as a sector and context specific form of engagement whose antecedents are heavily dependent on the perception of fairness across a range of reward factors. AEE differs from employee engagement descriptions drawn from other research, this contributes to the understanding that employee engagement is context specific. This research also found significant differences between senior HR managers and academic employees in their perceptions of AEE in the Higher education (HE) sector which has implications for the effective design of reward processes.
This research used a critical realism paradigm to take into account the effect of context. A sequential mixed-method approach was used involving in-depth semi-structured interviews with 20 human resource (HR) directors (or senior HR managers with reward responsibilities) in English HE institutions. This enabled the development of an understanding of their perceptions regarding reward and engagement, which informed the development of a survey questionnaire that was sent to 172 academics. The responses to the questionnaire provided both quantitative and qualitative data as it included a number of open-ended questions that sought academics’ view of the influence of the reward elements available to them on their engagement.
There are three main findings from this research. The first is that AEE is a complex construct, and it is perceived differently between senior HR managers and academics. Academics described AEE as comprising two dimensions, intellectual and social engagement, that are found in the core aspects of the academic role. However, senior HR managers felt that its dimensions should include organisational and affective engagement suggesting that although
in academia there is a distinctive way of understanding engagement, and there is a disconnect between the managerial view and academic view of AEE. This difference in conceptualising AEE is significant because senior HR managers have a key role to play in the provision of the antecedents to AEE by influencing the rewards available to academics.
The second main finding is the key role played by the perception of fairness across all factors that influence AEE. Although in previous studies fairness has been considered as a reward element (Chartered Institute Of Personnel And Development [CIPD], 2022; Murlis, 2009; Rickard et al., 2016; Seitovirta et al., 2017), the contribution of this research is that in this context it is not the case. This research found that fairness is a key enabler of the effectiveness of reward elements that are antecedents to AEE. This is significant because the effectiveness of reward in the HE sector depends on the perception of fairness of all reward
elements. Moreover, reward elements are interrelated constructs that impact on each other; in other words, there is not a single reward element that can be evaluated independently when considering engagement. Once again there was a division of view between academics and senior HR managers, as academics made strong and repeated references to fairness in the form of distributive justice, but senior HR managers were focussed on procedural justice when considering the role of fairness. Furthermore, whilst fairness was seen by academics as a reward enabler, senior HR managers regarded it as a reward element.
The perception of fairness is also found to be key to the outcome of two prominent theories, namely social exchange theory (SET) and job demands-resources (JDR) theory. SET requires both sides of the exchange relationship to perceive that what they give is a fair exchange for what they receive. For JDR to function effectively, the employee must perceive their resources as fair in terms of meeting their job demands.
This research provides new knowledge regarding employment engagement for academics and its relationship with reward. The results of the study highlight the opportunity for senior HR managers to consider the importance of understanding the components of AEE and the crucial role played by the perception of fairness.
Date of Award29 Mar 2023
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Portsmouth
SupervisorLiza Howe-Walsh (Supervisor), Karen Johnston (Supervisor) & Raymond Gary Rees (Supervisor)

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