Top of the class

“The only way an organisation can succeed is by embracing the people who work for it and getting them engaged in that organisation,” says Doug Hall, head of HR at Stockport College of Further and Higher Education. “That’s why I don’t see what we’ve done as that remarkable – it’s just good HR practice, nothing more.”

Hall is being modest. In less than two years, he and his HR team have spearheaded massive changes in the culture, work practice and ultimately the performance of the college. With the support of college principal Peter Roberts, staff contracts and work practices have been changed, the curriculum management and administration systems have been revolutionised, and the HR department has shifted from being an administration-led function to a forward-thinking force within the organisation.

The college’s significant improvements were recognised in a recent inspection by the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted), and it earned an ‘A’ category for finance. In the past year, the college has also exceeded the admissions targets set by the Learning and Skills Council – an accomplishment never before achieved.

Problems to be tackled

It is a far cry from when Hall came to the college in July 2002. He arrived in the wake of an Ofsted report, which highlighted financial difficulties and the need for cuts across the organisation. Underlying these problems were a series of issues, which Hall has had to tackle. The 800-plus teaching staff were employed under four different contracts – the result of changes over time with no attempt at consolidation.
The college operates on a not-for-profit basis, but it still needs to break even. And while local authority support ended in 1993, the college had not made appropriate changes to acknowledge this.

Also, having been on a level playing field when it came to rewarding staff – reimbursement being set by national agreements – the college now had the power to negotiate its own pay awards.

On the other side of this equation was the commercial task of attracting students. Students in the area have a choice of further and higher education colleges in Manchester, Stafford and Liverpool. So the college had to work to become the college of choice. But, to attract 12,000 students, you need to have something good to offer, which again came back to attracting and retaining staff. The college’s mission statement – Working Together to Deliver Your Future – needed to be applied as much to its workforce as its students.

Beside these issues was the fact that the HR department Hall inherited had experienced high turnover in recent years.

“One factor was certainly pay,” says Hall. “But more importantly, we were spending our time doing things which were administrative in nature, rather than HR.”

“The HR team reflects the way we are thinking now,” says Hall. “While as a college we’re still bound by the financial restriction of our funding, we’re now working at becoming and staying an employer of choice.”

Importantly, every change Hall and his team have introduced over the past two years has been done in consultation and agreement staff and unions. There have been roadshows, individual consultations, regular joint consultative committees and the option of an enhanced voluntary severance scheme for people who do not want to continue in the organisation.

“There have not been any compulsory redundancies in this process,” says Hall.

This is no mean feat, given that the new consolidated contracts saw staff teaching hours increase from 770 to 864 a year – from 35 to 37 hours a week – and holidays were reduced from 45 days to 40. Hall reports a 99% sign-up to the new contracts – partly a result of their approach, which was always to listen to staff concerns and adapt the scheme where possible. This move alone has delivered cost savings and efficiencies in the reward and management of staff.

A time for change

Following this, Hall and his team tackled the curriculum management structure – the process by which course details and timetables were organised.

“There was a perception that the management process had moved away from teaching,” says Hall. “We were able to take out a layer of middle management in the curriculum area.”

Again, this somewhat radical move was carried out with the full consultation of everyone involved, which included the creation of a booklet explaining precisely what each new job would entail, and what the pay and benefits would be under the new structure.

Such changes were not without some concerns from staff. “One of the criticisms we had from the lecturers was that they had more administration work, as well as extra teaching,” says Hall. “We recognised this and asked them to take a leap of faith. We said we had to get the curriculum structure sorted out first, then we would move on to the administration side.”

By the end of 2004, an administration system which met staff concerns and fitted into the new management structure and employment contracts was in place.

According to John Baldwin, registrar at Warwick University and executive member of the Association of University Administrators, HR has enjoyed an increased role in creating successful educational establishments.

“We have always been good at filling vacancies, advertising appointments, discipline and so on,” he says. “But in terms of seeing HR as a boardroom activity, we needed investment. If we are going to remain competitive, we have to hire the best academic staff we can. HR is at the interface between the institution and the people you want to hire, so it has to be a professional and engaging function.”

HR practice in the higher education sector has also been spurred on by the Higher Education Funding Council’s Rewarding and Developing Staff Initiative established five years ago to give financial rewards to good HR practice.

Keeping staff engaged

At Stockport, the change has not been a reactive one limited to the introduction of measures to address problems within the college. Hall is also looking for new ways to keep his staff engaged and retained for the good of future students.

Such measures extend beyond teaching staff. The College Initiative Payment, for example, is a cash reward given to all staff for a step change in their skills in a certain area. Recently, they challenged everyone to improve their IT skills.

“We included the catering staff. Then the training for their Certificate of Hygiene could be done by computer,” says Hall. “It is an initiative we will be repeating because it helps the college to improve, and shows individuals can improve.”

Hall and his team have a number of new ideas for the college. This includes an extensive review of benefits and rewards, including the possibility of an incentive scheme to reward attendance and exceptional performance.

“We still operate a final salary pension scheme and provide things such as an on-site gym, childcare vouchers, catering and flexi-time for support staff,” says Hall. “We’ve gone through the pain and now we’re going for the gain.

“The bottom line is always the learner comes first. That is still our ethos.”

Stockport College of Further and Higher Education

– Number in HR team: Eight – including one part-time member

– Number of staff: 1,000 – 450 lecturers and 550 part-time staff

– Number of students: 12,000

– Type of courses: GCSE, A-levels, AS, foundation courses, HND, degrees, diplomas, work-based learning courses, including NVQs across creative arts, science and technology, and professional studies – social care, business, teaching and education.

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