This post is based on part of a presentation I gave to the Medical Educator Forum at Edinburgh Medical School in April 2018: The Role of Professional Services Staff in Higher (Medical) Education. The talk focussed on thoughts and observations about the experiences of, and challenges facing, Professional Services staff in the twenty-first century environment, and their role in Higher Education communities. Seen through the filter of my own academic, personal, and professional experiences, the intention was to offer some food for thought (and discussion) on the role of identity and its importance in building cohesive educational communities which draw on the professional expertise of each and every individual.
This presentation has been rewritten specifically for #BadHigherEd, and discusses what will likely become recurring themes.
The political (using the term in the broadest possible sense) environment of Higher Education has changed substantially in the last several years, and there is a great deal of uncertainty about the future of Higher Education Institutions across the UK. This has been most recently demonstrated by the (entirely unsurprising) news that several education providers are in substantial financial difficulty.
All staff and students across the UK should be concerned about this. For Professional Services staff, the current environment has a direct effect on at least two of the three primary practical challenges that are faced on a day to day basis, regardless of the political context in which they operate.
These three primary challenges relate to:
This blog post will consider the second of these challenges: resources.
“For a moment, nothing happened. Then, after a second or so, nothing continued to happen.” (Douglas Adams)
It is remarkable, given the current strangulation of resources across the entirety of the Higher Education sector, how little prominence is given to the impact this has on Professional Services staff (and, therefore, the wider staff and student body). There is, quite rightly, a considerable amount of discussion regarding the impact such resource restrictions have on research and on teaching; but little, comparatively, about the effect those same resource restrictions have on the delivery of all things Higher Education because of issues resourcing Professional Services teams appropriately.
Meanwhile, the list of requirements and new initiatives that are expected to be delivered only gets longer. Always, there is more to deliver: seldom are more resources dedicated to make this possible in a well-managed and feasible manner.
This is especially noticeable in institutions where there is a clear division between academic and Professional Services staff, or a lack of appropriate champions in senior Professional Services positions.
From the point of view of a manager, this proves to be a two-headed problem. Firstly, there is the difficulty of achieving aims and targets given the staffing available, and; secondly, arguably much more importantly, there is the fact that you are responsible for a team who feels under pressure to deliver what may well be an impossible workload.
What can be done to mitigate the damage – and I use that word deliberately, if provocatively – of placing unreasonable or even impossible requirements upon teams? In at least one resource-strapped team I have managed, I have been in a position where I have had to repeatedly stress the importance of ensuring that each team member keeps an honest eye on their workload and notifies me if they are struggling to prioritise what to do next and, if needs be, I will make the call as to what must be dropped. Ultimately, it is the manager’s responsibility to ensure that the work gets done: where this is simply impossible, it is their responsibility to make the call about what it is reasonably possible to deliver and, therefore, what should be prioritised and what should not. And, above all else, it is the manager’s responsibility to ensure that their team continues to thrive, and stress is kept to a minimum.
Increasingly, this seems to be the most appropriate way of handling difficult staffing situations whilst formal representations are made to the powers that be regarding further staffing resources. And, believe me, it is difficult: no-one wants to let anything drop, and many people I have worked with who (quite justifiably) pride themselves on their work fall into the trap of constantly doing just that little bit more, going that little bit further: until they create such a rod for their own backs that they don’t know what to do when they have run out of the last vestiges of available hours in the day or personal energy or drive.
In addition to this, all this does in the long-run is mask resourcing problems that will not be taken seriously as long as it appears to all intents and purposes that the issues within the team are not as bad as they are formally presented. I have worked in one team whereby representations to senior management regarding serious staffing concerns were ignored because the team was still afloat (just): sadly, it often seems that, until something breaks, representations even by level-headed members of staff with significant experience are ignored as being exaggerations. (I should note the reason that things hadn’t entirely crumbled in the team I mention was because of the additional hours being worked by several of the managers within the team: at one point, there were at least three or four people working twelve-hour days in the office as standard, at what was considered a quiet time of year (do they exist?!).)
An approach considering what to prioritise and what to drop requires buy-in from all colleagues, staff and student. And this is where we find the rub: many of us, quite rightly, do not spend significant portions of our time conveying how busy we are to all and sundry during working hours, instead focussing on getting as much done as possible. As a result, there is disappointment when the default of staff and student colleagues is to assume that a delay in responding to a non-urgent matter is down to poor workload management. When members of staff are already regularly going above and beyond and are still crippled by internal staffing decisions, only for assumptions to be made about their ability to undertake their roles, it is not just disappointing, it’s hurtful.
In our current Higher Education environment, there is unlikely to be any significant change to the resourcing issues which lay heavy on all staff. Similarly, there is unlikely to be a reduction in the student satisfaction related initiatives that are introduced at institution level and expected to be delivered by all schools and teams. Even when external and internal reviews identify a clear need for further staffing within named teams, and recommend this in their quality reports, there is no guarantee that any extra resource will be forthcoming. To best manage this within the Higher Education community, therefore, there is a need to remind ourselves (though we shouldn’t need reminding) of the need for a minimum standard of respect across all roles, from and to all colleagues (including the student body: I know of several members of staff working their arses off who have been left crushed by an at-best-careless, at-worst-entitled, comment by a student). There will undoubtedly be times when workload management rather than resourcing issues is indeed the problem: and, where necessary, these should be referred to the relevant manager for investigating and addressing as appropriate. But we cannot start from the default of assuming that, because something has not been done, someone is not working as hard or as smartly as they could be. We need to remember at all times the human impact of under-resourced teams, because all too often it reaches a point where something has to give, and something breaks: and, heartbreakingly, that something is sometimes a person. And that is never acceptable.
Next week: Resilience.