Why are universities so bad at training their own staff?

surrounded by a high wallI’ve worked at a number of Higher Education Institutions and one thing that has always amazed me is how bad universities are at training their own staff.

Let me give you an example.  About 12 years ago I got a job at a London university, but based at a campus about 60 miles away.

1 –Denial

As part of the job I needed to use a Microsoft Access database.  Fine, I thought – I’d used Access in a previous role.

I was administrator for various programmes, including the MBA.  I had to enter student details from enquiry, though to application,  registration and enrolment onto modules.  And I was dealing with hundreds of people.

Within 3 weeks of starting I realised that I’d need to know a lot more about Access if I were to be able to do the job.  I was shown how to enter data about a student (and how to search for a student and update their entry).  What I wasn’t taught was how to get the summary information I needed back out of the database.

My line manager had set up several queries for things she needed herself but wouldn’t show me them and wouldn’t add any more.  I was stumped.  But the institution’s Staff Development Brochure had just arrived so I looked at that and found what I needed.  “Access Queries Part 1 and 2” – two half-day courses handily delivered over consecutive days at the London campus.  I went to my line manager and asked if I could go on the courses.  Surprisingly she said “no”.  Her reasons?  “I can’t spare you for 2 days” and “my staff tell me the courses aren’t that good”.

I was shocked.  OK, her reasons might be valid and she may well be right but that still left me in a predicament and she was offering no alternatives.  How on earth was I supposed to manage?

The MBA Programme Director would call me almost daily asking for statistics on the number of applications, enquiries etc.  I couldn’t answer him despite having entered all the details on the database.  So I would say, “can you give me a few hours” and I would keep piles of folders dotted around the place and I would physically count up all the files and keep track that way.  Incredibly poor service to the Programme Manager, incredibly time-consuming and inefficient, not to mention frustrating and stressful for me.

My saviour came in the form of a new IT lady I got chatting to.  She’d discovered that she could give me a copy of Access to take home on a ‘work-from-home’ license.  So I installed Access at home,  bought a book (ECDL Advanced Access) and spent three weekends working through it until I knew the basics.

The same IT lady then gave me a copy of our student database (let’s not worry about data security here!) with some notes on how to install it at home.  I then went through that database table by table (there were over 100) to try and find where different bits of data were kept.

Finally I went back into work and set up the queries I needed in order to be able to do my job properly.

2 The secret HTML adventure

Later on in the job I was suddenly given the task of editing the MBA programme web pages using a CMS.  Again, I had no training (I think people at the London campus got it, I was left out).  I had never edited web pages before.  We had a WYSIWYG editor and I was constantly getting into problems, calling the IT lady to come and sort it out. She’d click on the <code> button, fix it and go off again.

OK, I thought.  I can’t keep asking the IT lady to come and sort it out.  I need to know the basics of HTML.

I couldn’t risk getting another refusal from my line manager so I looked around and found a beginners HTML session run by Kent Adult Education.  It was a one day course of 5 hours.  So I booked the course (it was only about £30), took the day off work and paid to get myself to the venue.  I didn’t tell anyone where I was going.

It was excellent – the best training I’ve ever done.  Jam-packed with useful information and when I got back into work I could edit the web pages easily.  Job done.


Suffice to say I didn’t last long there.  But why on earth did I have to go through so much trouble to get the skills I needed to do the job?  No one starts a job knowing everything required.  There will always be gaps and there will always be new skills required as the job develops.

These days life is a lot easier – you can buy a book, go online and get access to tutorials and courses (many free) to teach you most things.  (And my IT skills are way better now anyway!)  But what you can’t get elsewhere is institution-specific, job-specific knowledge and skills.  That needs to come from your own institution, and if your line manager refuses that, you’re in a pickle.

Staff training does not have to be expensive, or onerous and can take many forms.  And it reaps immediate returns if the staff member concerned becomes more efficient, skilled and confident.  Find the most efficient way that solves the need – don’t leave the staff member floundering on their own.  And don’t assume that the new guy/girl can be taught from people around them.  Who taught those people in the first place?  How do you know they can pass that knowledge on effectively?  Have things changed since they were taught and might they need refresher training themselves?

Universities recognise the importance of this and have various policies and processes to get the best from their staff – staff development policies, staff development programmes, the appraisal system etc.  Well that’s the theory at least.  In practice, if your line manager refuses, you might as well give up now.


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