What do we want? Um…improved access to training, protected time, and a universal PDR process. When do we want it? Now! Or, relatively soon, if now’s not convenient? | AUA Blog

Alex Holmes
Assistant Registrar (Joint Working)

University of Oxford

In the last decade or so UK Higher Education has moved, sometimes willingly, occasionally kicking, screaming, and digging in the fingernails of academic freedom, towards an increasingly businesslike management model, squeezed between greater ‘global marketplace’ competition, ever-scarcer funding, increased governance and compliance needs, and the ‘student as customer’ attitude engendered by full tuition fees. In tandem with this, we’ve seen greater numbers of specialist roles and fewer ‘generalist’ administrators within the non-academic professional services and support staff categories, along with professional services staff taking the opportunity to examine their own professional identity within the wider HE environment.

Despite this shift, professional training and structured career development is often seen as being less well prioritised for administrators than similar activities in the academic and research staff groups; administrative or professional staff themselves are, on the whole, a highly motivated bunch, and actively seek out training and development (which is of course also of significant benefit to their institutions), but we often hear grumbles of them being hampered by a lack of properly supported time or structured opportunities and workload pressures, and there is a sense among professional services staff that they are not as well supported by their institutions as their academic colleagues. When I recently looked at this area for my MSc research project, the results showed that whilst on the whole professional services staff felt that their institution clearly demonstrated a commitment to supporting their development, at the same time 50% reported that their institution was less committed to their needs as to those of their academic and research colleagues. Around half of the respondents reported that they experienced barriers in their role preventing them from engaging in training or development; as you might expect, much of this resulted from shortages of time and funding, and in particular to a feeling of being the ‘poor cousins’ to academic staff when it came to ‘protected’ time off for training or conferences; more interestingly though, similar issues were raised around appraisal or annual review, and to the structured development planning and goal-setting which effective PDR can aid; almost a quarter of those polled didn’t have a regular PDR with their manager, and a further 10% had one, but less than annually. These concerns weren’t confined to the staff themselves; 60% of those with line management responsibilities for professional services staff reported that workload pressure was so great that it created a barrier to staff engagement with training opportunities.

Whilst this certainly isn’t a universal view, and clearly areas of excellent practice and dedicated, supportive managers do widely exist, it’s reasonable to assume that these concerns surface to a greater or lesser

extent across the sector, to the obvious detriment of those staff on the ‘negative’ end of the scale. What, then, is to be done? Given institutions increasing need for highly trained and motivated professional services staff, and the increasing specialisation of those staff themselves, how do we go about meeting their particular needs?

Well, we could start with equalising access to training and conference budgets for all staff, with a unified transparent approach to funding allocation (where have we heard that before?) to dispel the perception of the ‘dice being loaded’ towards the opposite side of the academic/administrative divide. The idea of  ‘per head’ training budgets for all staff may sit more comfortably with some institutions than with others, (cue dark mutterings about devolved governance and locally-held staff budgets) but, along with an annualised allowance of protected CPD days to avoid the perception of work ‘piling up’ during absences, these exist in many organisations already and would go some way to reducing any feelings of inequity whilst emphasising institutions’ commitment to CPD for all staff regardless of grade, role, or specialism.

Allied to this is a need for long-term staff development planning, rather than a short-term ‘task-based’ approach to training (often simply related to filling a skills gap in a department, or to new systems or software, rather than being focussed on individual needs). Linking training and development objectives to prospective roles and to planned career progression would provide a visible commitment to the importance of ongoing continuous development, allow greater clarity for managers in identifying objectives for their staff (no more the ‘so, what courses would you like to go on?’ approach once a year, if we’re lucky), aid the scheduling of training provision for institutions, and allow individuals to better understand their own requirements in line with their career aspirations. An opportunity for formal schemes utilising the apprenticeship levy, perhaps?

Alongside this, greater emphasis needs to be placed on effective PDR and appraisal; at-least-annual review meetings, coupled with regular, ‘as and when’ conversations, to discuss career aspirations and development goals. This is also likely to require some extra training for managers themselves; those with responsibility for line-management in Higher Education have all-too-often entered into those roles for reasons of academic standing or research excellence, rather than a proven staff-management track record, and this may be particularly true where academic staff manage professional services teams. Imagine for a moment, though, a world where all senior managers extolled the benefits of relevant, meaningful development priorities for their staff and the provision of useful and valued reviews, and a culture where all staff felt comfortable with time for discussion of their career aspirations and development goals which were equally valued by their managers and their institutions. Wishful thinking, or a challenge to be accepted?

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