A benchmark for the people

March 26, 1999

Staff development is just one benefit of the Investors in People scheme, which is now attracting the once-critical higher education sector. Olga Wojtas reports

The Investors in People laurel wreath has been viewed with suspicion, disdain or indifference by many higher education institutions.

Initially run by a section of the Department for Education and Employment, which evolved in 1993 into IiP UK, the scheme strives to help organisations improve through assessment. An institution must ensure that all staff know its aims and how they are expected to help achieve these. It must provide the necessary staff training and development, and check how effective this is. IiP assessors review a portfolio of evidence and interview a cross-section of staff, at a cost of Pounds 550 a day.

Assessment fatigue is rife in higher education and there is wariness of perceived threats to institutional autonomy. In further education, however, the reaction has been very different. Just over a year ago, 84 per cent of colleges in the sector had joined the scheme, and almost half had won IiP recognition.

This may be partly because training and enterprise councils and local enterprise companies, which have close links with further education, are responsible for promoting the scheme.

Colleges are also less alarmed by external investigations, said Judith Norrington, the Association of Colleges's director of curriculum and development: "Further education has always had to demonstrate its worth to a range of partners."

IiP status is an overt way of demonstrating quality, and it is important to further education that it be recognised, by industry in particular, she said.

"It supports the approach that says your most valuable asset is your people, and as we move into an era of greater and greater self-assessment by colleges, it is increasingly important that staff are fully involved in decision-making."

The Further Education Funding Council also encourages institutions to seek IiP status, and itself hopes for accreditation by the end of the year. Kate Anderson, the FEFC's greater London regional director, said: "There's a big push on in the sector to raise standards, and we would see colleges' commitment to their people as part of that.

"Rather than a haphazard approach to staff development, IiP reinforces the linkages between institutional performance and goals and individuals."

Recently there has been an upsurge in higher education institutions that believe IiP can help them. This may have been prompted by Dearing, which urged them to consider seeking IiP status, telling them that they must in any case update their staff development policies to ensure that these addressed changing roles.

There has also been support from the Universities and Colleges Staff Development Agency, itself accredited by IiP. Senior manager Bob Thackwray, UK adviser to higher education for IiP, said that rather than being an additional burden, IiP should support all the other assessment processes.

"What is unique is that it is the only people-quality standard," IiP's Ian Luxford said. "It enables organisations to understand why they are where they are, and to take action to make things better or build on their success by understanding the role people play in an organisation."

Bill Sutherland, Strathclyde University's director of personnel, said IiP ensures that the staff's skills and knowledge are at the heart of the planning process.

While academics might be seen as the public face of higher education, catering and cleaning staff play an equally key role in "supporting the quality of the student experience", said Mr Thackwray.

Michael Daniel, pro-rector of University College Northampton, formerly Nene, said its staff development unit focused primarily on innovative teaching but has now broadened to include staff from all areas. It runs programmes from national standards in cleaning processes to professional diplomas for administrators.

"We also have 40 cleaners and porters doing basic computer courses, which has done wonders in terms of boosting morale. We're giving something back to staff at low cost to us, and it changes people's perceptions of themselves."

The perceptions of others are also crucial, adds Mr Sutherland. "We've always thought IiP would be a more powerful message to users of higher education than within higher education. Research assessment exercise ratings do not mean a lot to Joe Public; quality assessment means a bit more, but people do not retain the information. IiP is a quality standard that people can recognise."

LOOKING AFTER THE WORKERS

Strathclyde University, which won IiP status in January, is the first pre-1992 university to be recognised as a whole institution. Personnel director Bill Sutherland says there was a fear that IiP would not understand the complexity of a research-led university.

"People form their own research groups interact with people in other departments, and planning and evaluation depends on what that group is trying to do. We have developed a more flexible management approach because of this complexity,'' said Mr Sutherland.

An attitude survey found staff enjoyed their work and had confidence in their immediate managers. But many found senior management remote and thought information was scanty or of poor quality. Strathclyde has now beefed up communications through meetings, the staff newsletter and readable handbooks.

"There's no doubt that people in the residence and catering service and library got a big kick out of being involved in this, and the attention we have paid to groups of staff has meant a big increase in morale."

In 1993, Knowsley Community College was one of the first institutions in the country to be accredited.

"Organisations were asked for a declaration of intent by the local TEC, and it seemed like a good idea," said principal George Sweeney. "It was about how organisations treat staff, and we thought it would be a good discipline to get somebody from outside to look at what we did, how we did it, and say whether we were doing it right. They behave the way FEFC inspectors behave. They do not just believe what you tell them, they go and test it."

The college was reaccredited in 1996, when it further boosted staff development. Knowsley now faces another three-year reassessment and Mr Sweeney believes that while there should always be assessment visits, their scope should reduce once an institution has proved itself.

But he said the process of developing best practice is important rather than the IiP badge: "It's an educative process. Education is partly about reflection, and IiP is reflection about how you are with staff."

Institutions seeking accreditation normally hire an external assessor to carry out a mock assessment in preparation for the real one. But University College Northampton, formerly Nene College, decided to capitalise on its in-house expertise and use its own academic audit team.

There were fears that it might not be able to assess non-academic staff well enough, despite training by Bob Thackwray, an IiP specialist from UCoSDA.

"But the main skills about audit are the ability to understand what it is you are investigating, weigh up the evidence and, above all, talk to people," said pro-rector Michael Daniel.

"I think we made good use of our own resources. We developed expertise, we saw bags of good practice, and the ultimate validation is that we were successful in getting IiP in 1997," he said.

Mr Thackwray said: "Institutional self-evaluation ought to be where we are leading."

Manchester University's school of biological sciences won recognition as an Investor in People two weeks ago.

It is the largest school on campus, with more than 500 staff, about 10 per cent of the university workforce. It was formed by the merger of four departments in 1994, and IiP was seen as a potential means of improving communication.

The assessor's "before" report noted that communications were on a "need to know" basis, induction was seen as minimal, and some staff felt undervalued.

The "after" report praised clear and consistent lines of communication, a quality induction programme, and continuous improvement in training and development.

"Everything embodied in IiP is good management practice and we would want to do it anyway, but we did need a bit more focus," said laboratory superintendent John Robinson.

"We wanted to engender a culture of positive encouragement, a bit more of the carrot and less of the stick. The general feeling now is that we are all heading in the same direction rather than working alone."

The assessment costs less than Pounds 2,000.

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