Identifying and Recognising the Contributions of Professional Services Staff


By Professor Julian Gould-Williams, Professor of Human Resource Management at Cardiff Business School.

Although professional services (PS) staff can comprise up to 50% of the higher education workforce, their contribution to student performance outcomes is often underestimated. Why? It appears that academics get the ‘lion share’ of the credit based on the quality of their teaching, with PS staff often not even getting a mention. PS staff play a significant role in student retention and success as they help navigate students through complicated administrative processes and procedures. So why are their contributions often underestimated by the educational institutions they serve? A recent paper (by Carroll Graham and Julie Anne Regan, July 2016) based on a comparative study of the experiences of PS staff working in two educational institutions based in Australia and the UK provides some insights into this phenomenon and confirms that such non-recognition is certainly not an isolated issue.

It’s all about attitude

Addressing the imbalance of recognition and rewards may start with having the ‘right kind of attitude’. Are PS staff treated as ‘second’ class citizens in your institution? Are perceptions that PS staff are ‘less intelligent’, ‘less capable’ or ‘do not care’ about their work widespread too? Are systems and processes valued more than the PS staff who are responsible for making such systems and processes work? Even senior PS managers are reported to ‘under value’ their PS staff. So, what contributions do PS staff make towards successful student performance? Here I draw on three areas in which their contributions are generally undervalued.

Tacit knowledge and experience

How many can claim to hold a comprehensive and full understanding of university processes and policy, especially with regards to entry qualifications, prerequisites of programmes, student progression, module choice, impact of extenuating circumstances, student engagement and attendance, home office requirements, and a myriad of other factors all of which impact student performance? Many PS staff can make such a claim. How many PS staff do you know that are critical to the smooth running of the department or unit they serve? They answer queries posed by PS colleagues, students and academic staff, along with anxious parents and guardians. They also know who to contact within the university network of PS administrators, to achieve a rapid response to a query or remedy an administrative error. Such tacit knowledge accumulates over time, with long serving PS staff holding a library of information in their memories. They are often responsible for the smooth transition between one academic director and the next ensuring continuity of quality standards and processes. And yet again, their worth is often underestimated, their jobs are poorly understood and when they leave, rarely are succession plans put in place to ensure experiences are shared with others.

Barriers to teaching and educating students

If permitted, when PS staff share in classroom teaching, their contributions are again underestimated. Academic staff are regarded as ‘the experts’ or ‘those qualified to teach’, with PS staff treated as class room assistants. But why? In a research institution, academic staff may excel at research, producing high quality journal articles and papers. Does this, by default, make them good teachers? Student evaluation and feedback reports suggest otherwise. In many institutions, experienced practitioners are encouraged to give guest lectures, and students enjoy learning from their experiences. What teaching qualifications do such guest lecturers have? In the vast majority of cases none whatsoever!! What criteria are used in selecting industry-based practitioners? Experience alone. Therefore, why can’t similar criterion be applied to PS staff who are interested in teaching students within the class /lecture room context? In fact, given that PS staff often have a genuine interest in student experiences, are highly qualified and motivated, why should their contributions to the formal teaching programmes be any less valued and appreciated?

Highlighting the human story behind the student number

PS staff are often involved in ‘fighting’ for student cases to be heard when policy and procedures may attempt to ‘silence’ student voices. PS staff are more likely to appreciate the ‘human story’ behind the student number, the context in which difficulties arise, the barriers that unexpectedly arose to thwart student progression. PS staff are likely to be more aware of the need to remedy matters quickly and effectively so that any negative impact on student progression can be limited. They do not lose sight of who the student is. When dealing with tens of thousands of students, it’s easy to forget the human story. In the minds of many, the student somehow metamorphoses into numerals – devoid of personality, human nature, intelligence and emotion. It is often the PS staff who reinvigorates life into the student’s ID so that their progression through the education system is not prematurely halted due to some failure to comply with institutional policy.

Recognising the contributions of PS staff

Are the contributions made by PS staff largely ignored by institutions because it is difficult to isolate the individual role in achieving improved student outcomes? Where academic colleagues’ performance is generally based on individual merit (success of research grant applications, publication in international journal articles, high teaching evaluation scores, successfully undertaking administrative roles, etc), such is not the case with PS staff. Measuring PS staff ‘contributions’, ‘success’ or ‘merit’ is not as straightforward. The performance outcomes are less tangible and more complex. If formally isolating the contributions to desirable student outcomes are problematic, what about simply recognising the contributions of PS staff based on feedback and observations? Are there mechanisms in place in which colleagues can report citizenship behaviors or cite examples where individuals have gone beyond the call of duty in helping others, be they students, academics or fellow PS staff? Recognition and reward schemes need to be context specific – what works in one institution may not have a similar effect in another. Therefore, seek views from PS staff themselves to find out what they value and how they want their hard work to be recognised. Listen to them and act accordingly – your efforts will surely be rewarded!

Professor Julian Gould-Williams
is Professor of Human Resource Management at Cardiff Business School.