Like most authors, Carroll and I were delighted to have our paper on the contribution of professional staff to student outcomes published by the Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management recently. We were also excited to hear that the article had attracted the attention of the THE and we agreed to discuss our research with one of their journalists.
Serendipitously, Carroll was visiting our university at the time. Our conversation with the THE journalist, however, was a little disappointing. Despite our best efforts, the journalist chose to focus on just a few (negative) points. This has led to discussions on various forums, both in the UK and Australia, and we have felt it necessary to ‘put the record straight’ on several occasions. The main thrust of our paper was that professional staff develop pedagogical partnerships with academic staff, other professional staff and with students. Effective working is about collaboration and co-operation to achieve optimal student outcomes – and that the part professional staff play in those partnerships needs to be recognised in a systemic manner.
Contrary to the view headlined in the THE, our study actually suggests there is a reduction in the ‘them and us’ tension, particularly as professional staff become more qualified. Nevertheless, some professional staff we interviewed felt under-appreciated by senior management. The sort of recognition (or lack thereof) in our study was systemic. Participants reported a perceived lack of acknowledgement as an equal partner in such things as enhancement plans, or recognition as a co-author on reports, etc. This systemic lack of recognition was evident in both our case studies.
It also needs to be understood that our methodology deliberately chose to take the perspective of professional staff – that is, we interviewed professional staff, but only professional staff. Hence the question of ‘why?’, behind some of our findings, remains to be explored. This was an ideological decision, with the aim of giving ‘voice’ to professional staff.
The methodology was case study and included two cases – one from Australia and the other from the UK. As such, the findings pertain specifically to those cases, but may provide some insights into similar cases elsewhere. The recommendations from our paper include the following:
- Professional staff role descriptors need to make clear the nature of their contribution to student outcomes, to ensure smart recruitment of people with the right set of skills and values.
- Promotion of more overtly collaborative initiatives between professional staff and academic colleagues for retention, persistence and success, and raise awareness of pedagogical partnerships.
- Care must be taken, by all levels of management, to recognise and value all contributors to the pedagogical partnerships that promote successful student outcomes.
- The binary divide of pay scales and other rewards and benefits need to be reviewed, not only to take account of emerging blended HE professionals, but simply to remove a significant barrier to true partnering.
- Length of service makes professional staff an important resource, but consideration is needed to ensure succession planning and sustainability of service.
- Equality of opportunity for development and scholarly activity for professional staff enhances their job satisfaction and retention, which is is ultimately beneficial to student outcomes and the institution — a more engaged and motivated body of professional staff is both more willing, and able, to provide quality professional services.
We hope that this posting ‘sets the record straight’, and inspires you to read the full article.
Dr Julie-Anne Regan, University of Liverpool
Dr Carroll Graham UTS, Sydney Australia