Why we should focus on improving employee engagement in colleges

Why we should focus on improving employee engagement in colleges

Some months ago, I got into a lively conversation with experienced Organisational Development consultant, Ali Herdman. We were talking about the areas in which OD & internal communications are complementary skills and how they impact positively on employee engagement.

Ali has a wealth of expertise in the education sector, particularly in working with leaders of sixth form and further education colleges. We talked about the experience I’ve had, of planning responsive communications and inspiring a positive approach to engagement, to deliver better outcomes for employees. Ali felt it would be good insight to share with a sector she knows well and cares about deeply.

Aside from the many pressures on the college sector, including changes to financing mechanisms, reducing budgets and increased expectations for academic outcomes, the key insight Ali had about engagement posed a challenge. The understanding she received anecdotally was that college employees, in particular teachers and lecturers, derived their engagement from their vocation rather than their employer. They were motivated to teach their subject and to encourage their learners but had a less than strong alignment with their institution.

What’s the relevance of employee engagement to the sector?

If this is truly the case, is there any relevance in college leaders attempting to measure and improve engagement levels? In an already stretched sector, could there be any value in investing time, let alone budget, in trying to fix something that may not actually be broken?

Based on the dialogue I’d had with Ali and the research we carried out, which I’ll describe below, I strongly believe there is. I wanted to share my enthusiasm for simple, direct engagement techniques to see if they might help make some headway.

Feeling valued is a precursor to engagement

Research into engagement in further education and sixth form colleges yielded a surprisingly small number of reports and case studies, given that the sector employs an estimated 120,000 people in the UK.  

One excellent resource we found was the Association of Colleges’ report, ‘Employee Engagement in Further Education’. The report was published in 2014 and expresses a clear view on the importance of employee engagement, “Although there has been little work done in the sector, it is clear that employee engagement is absolutely vital in further education.”

The data listed in the report is insightful and confirms the understanding we’d been given: that engagement levels are higher for the vocation than for the institution. It states that while 74% of respondents are proud to work in the learning and skills sector, only 48% are proud to work at their organisation.

The AoC report on engagement in colleges includes a statistic I found both sobering and indicative of the work that can be done to improve engagement levels. A Learning and Skills Network survey found that only 35% of employees felt valued by their employer.

It seems hard to accept that roughly two thirds of the people who are educating and shaping the future of thousands of learners are feeling undervalued. It’s even harder to expect those people to consistently deliver inspirational and engaging learning experiences if they are feeling disconnected and disengaged. Taking time to understand what would indicate to college employees that their hard work and good will are appreciated and valued would be a straightforward step that would positively influence this concerning perception.

Engaged teachers and lecturers deliver a more positive learner experience.

We presented our workshop attendees with some data about engagement that was collated in the Higher Education sector. It’s taken from an ORC International research report (which we found through the Engage For Success website) and states that university departments in the top quartile for engagement metrics receive an average of 5% higher student satisfaction scores.

This clear indication of the correlation between engaged lecturers and positive learner outcomes was no surprise to our workshop attendees. It’s not difficult to accept that enthusiastic, ‘switched on’ teachers are more likely to engage and inspire learners, although it is helpful to have data to demonstrate that. I suspect the long-standing reliance on the intrinsic motivation of lecturers – that their passion for the subject and the vocation should be enough – has removed a sense of urgent need for the organisation to be an engaging work place.

The pressure to ‘do more with less’

It’s understandable that only priority needs are addressed in this sector. It has been a time of huge change, as the AoC pointed out in its 2014 report, “colleges are having to adapt to significant policy change”; there are mergers between colleges, and pressure to ‘do more with less’. There are societal changes such as the increase of reported mental health issues amongst young adults. There is the pressure many sectors feel, of increased transparency and accountability to local communities. Looking ahead, there is uncertainty about the changing nature of the workplace and the likely effect that will have on vocational and occupational skills requirements.


icon of factory text about changing nature of work means changes to vocational skills requirements

There is a wealth of evidence to suggest that engagement becomes both challenged and acutely critical at times of change. In their report, Managing Engagement at Times of Change, Aon Hewitt describe how “the degree to which employees can identify with their organisation, see a clear future, or strive toward organisational objectives seems to be most significantly at risk during change events.”

Much of the conversation during the workshop centred on the pressures of change and communication, like the need to keep everyone informed during times when many conversations need to be ‘behind closed doors’. A well-thought-through internal communications strategy, including opportunities for timely sharing of information and for everyone to share their perspective, was one of the solutions considered and discussed.

Employee engagement is not an initiative

It would be inaccurate to claim that employee engagement was a new concept to the leaders in our workshop. What was interesting was the fact they considered it to be an initiative – a survey-and-results process, or a time-consuming obligation, with some fairly predictable statistics to report. I hope that the course of the conversation revealed that engagement is not an initiative but an approach. It’s a change of perspective that recognises the power of an engaged workforce and leads to everyday priorities being addressed in a way that is inclusive, mindful of the organisation’s values and deliberately engaging. It’s a mindset shift that places human needs at the front and centre of decision–making and culture. It ensures people are valued for who they are and what they do; that they feel informed and consulted; they are encouraged to achieve more and grow; their need for wellbeing is recognised and respected; they are able to bring their whole selves to an inclusive workplace.

“A genuine, ongoing effort to improve employee engagement results in a more motivated workforce” explained a senior member of HR recruitment agency, Bowen Eldridge.


I was delighted to receive feedback from the leaders in our workshop describing their desire to find out more about adopting simple but genuine steps to improve their colleagues’ sense of engagement, of being valued for their skills and encouraged in their efforts to achieve more. I wish them all well in their efforts to create more engaging cultures in their colleges.

With grateful thanks to Ali Herdman and the inspirational colleges leaders who joined our workshop on 8 June 2018.

If you’d like to join a future workshop with other college leaders, contact us here.

Alternatively, if you’d like some bespoke support with improving employee engagement, drop us a line and we’ll get in touch to arrange an informal chat.

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