University professional staff: enhancing student outcomes
24 September 2013, by Carroll Graham
Carroll Graham is Executive Manager of the Institute for Sustainable Futures at University of Technology, Sydney.
What are the key factors that you, as a team leader or manager of professional staff, can foster in your team to support the achievement of positive student outcomes? Over the last decade, there has been increased pressure on universities to improve the student experience and to raise the quality and accountability for teaching and research, so universities must make the most of all their staff to meet these demands. A recent study at the University of Technology, Sydney (UTS) suggests that the work of professional staff contributes positively to students achieving their learning outcomes.
Firstly, what are student outcomes? Despite its widespread use, the term student outcomes has different meanings for different people with different purposes. As the cost of university education has been transferred to individuals – students and often their parents – these stakeholders seek to identify and measure the return on their investments, making outcomes that relate to retention, graduation and graduate employment rates increasingly important. Accordingly, the UTS study defined student outcomes in terms of engaging and retaining students through to completion, and found that professional staff contribute to positive student outcomes by being welcoming and providing welcoming environments, and by implementing processes that are efficient. These behaviours, environments and processes include a wide range of specific aspects, such as enrolment and general administration processes, course selection and timetabling, and provision of advice that is timely and appropriate.
Four key sub-themes emerged from the UTS study, which acted as an enabler (or inhibitor, if negative traits were observed) for professional staff in their provision of services to students:
- The impact of changing and increasing technology.
- The role of knowledgeable individuals.
- The effect of helpful colleagues and supportive supervisors or managers.
- Job satisfaction for professional staff.
The UTS study found three ways that technology impacts on the work of professional staff in higher education: the continual development of new technologies, the increased use of technology, and changes to learning environments that are facilitated by technology. These three conditions require staff to adapt to new systems and new ways of working, which requires training and time to upskill. In addition, changes in technology, and associated new ways of communication, have changed the way professional staff interact with students. Students now expect that support will be available 24/7. Finally, having technology that works effectively is essential for provision of services that achieve desired results.
Staff knowledge is recognised as a key factor for positive relationships between staff and customers. In the UTS study, professional staff identified the importance of staff knowledge from two key perspectives: their own knowledge and knowledge held by other professional staff. This knowledge is crucial to meeting the needs of students effectively. There is not only a need to attract the right staff, but also a need to provide appropriate professional development and to retain knowledgeable and experienced professional staff. Far from being interchangeable extras from Universal Casting, highly knowledgeable professional staff are a valuable asset to the core business of teaching and learning.
Colleagues and supervisors
In general, staff attitude is a key indicator of service quality. Although the customer is not always right – just think of the big banks! – a lack of customer focus is an obstacle to meeting the needs of students. And yes, students should be thought of as customers in the co-creation of their experiences. Knowing which colleagues are helpful, and having positive relationships with these colleagues, enables effective provision of services to students. In contrast, a lack of time to appropriately deal with student enquiries is a hindrance to meeting the needs of students. Lack of time may be caused by competing work priorities and inefficient processes, so supervisors and managers need to facilitate work structures and processes that enable professional staff to provide the services that students need. Importantly, managers need to value professional staff and their work.
Job satisfaction is strongly linked with customer satisfaction, and so providing conditions in which professional staff gain satisfaction from their work will enhance outcomes for students. Having technology and systems that work well, being knowledgeable and having knowledgeable colleagues, and having supportive colleagues and supervisors, all contribute to the job satisfaction for professional staff. Intrinsic motivation may be a reflection of job satisfaction, and is engendered by having control over our own lives, feeling effective in what we do, and feeling a sense of belonging with others. In addition, the combination of intrinsic motivation and prosocial motivation (the desire to benefit other people) is a good predictor of higher levels of persistence, performance and productivity. Having professional staff who have intrinsic and prosocial motivations benefits the individual, the organisation and student outcomes.
What can team leaders and managers do?
Professional staff contribute significantly to positive student outcomes by being welcoming and enabling, by providing welcoming environments, and by implementing processes that are efficient. This relies on having effective technology, being knowledgeable and having knowledgeable colleagues, and having supportive colleagues and supervisors. In recognising the importance of their contribution, professional staff gain prosocial and intrinsic motivation, leading to significant job satisfaction and improved performance. This suggests several significant implications.
Managers and supervisors can foster intrinsic motivators of professional staff, which will help retain experienced staff and keep them engaged with their work and the strategic goals of their institutions. This includes providing:
- A learning culture and professional development opportunities that enable staff to develop competence to succeed at relevant and challenging tasks.
- Autonomy for choice and initiation of such activities.
- Opportunities for the development of mutual respect and reliance with colleagues, both professional and academic.
Managers and supervisors can recognise the contributions of professional staff to the core business of learning and teaching, and explicitly value these contributions. This allows both individuals and the institution to benefit from the capacity of these staff, and recognises that universities are run by partnerships of academic and professional staff. The blurring of roles and work between traditional academic and professional staff requires a more flexible approach to workload distribution and career progression, to the benefit of staff and students.
The work of all staff is essential to students achieving their learning outcomes, and all staff need to work together, supportively, valuing the work of their colleagues. This is contingent on recruiting and retaining the right staff, be they professional or academic, and team leaders and managers have a crucial role to play in facilitating this outcome.