As disputes rise so do the costs

As icy draughts and the impact of budget cuts blow through further education, tensions among staff are rising. Small wonder, perhaps that college managers are increasingly looking for outside help.

There’s now a growing demand for the services of outside human resources (HR) consultants – some costing £800 a day – to help sort out a variety of conflicts.

There are grumbles aplenty. According to a recent members’ survey by the lecturers’ union UCU, 84 per cent of respondents admitted to finding their job stressful last year.

Two thirds reported ‘unreasonable expectations’ from colleagues, students and managers’ as a principal cause. Even allowing for those who enjoy a good moan, this sounds like an unhealthy situation.

So outsiders are being hired to help sort out disputes: redundancy; breakdown of staff relationships; rows over unannounced lesson observations; and wrangles over contracts. But are they value for money – and why employ them when colleges have their own personnel teams?

Sue Clyne, executive director of HR Guildford College has seen things from both sides of the fence – she worked as a freelance herself until earlier this year. “Conflict mediation is a growing area,” she says. “Sometimes an internal HR person can be heavily involved; and disputes get to a very emotive level.”

One college where an outsider may have helped broker a peace deal is Westminster Kingsway. Lecturers there have boycotted unannounced lesson observations by managers for almost four years. Keen to break the deadlock, principal Andy Wilson hired Martin Rosner head of HR at FE Associates, to help find a compromise.

The practice of managers dropping in on lessons and monitoring lecturers without notice has severely strained relationships at several colleges in London and beyond. One lecturer, who asked not to be named, said: “It’s like ‘we’re going to catch you out – we know you’re lazy and cut corners, and we’re going to prove it’. I’d say this is probably the most stressful thing for any teacher, and the most common reason people are getting out.”

Neither Wilson nor Rosner wished to discuss the current situation at Westminster Kingsway now that dialogue between lecturers’ representatives and management is underway. “It wouldn’t be proper to talk to the press or undermine things,” said Rosner. “It’s a sensitive issue.”

Rosner says FE Associates get called upon ‘as honest brokers’ to resolve all sorts of issues. “It can be over anything, such as a complaint of harassment,” he says. “There’s more of this work now – we’re building it up. Things are very difficult for colleges at the moment – the last thing they want is to be involved in a protracted dispute.”

He declined to say how much he charges but, according to Clyne, outside HR consultants’ fees range from £300 to £800 a day. But, amid recession and in a competitive field, charges ‘have come down over the last 12 months from a minimum of £450’, she adds.

Clyne’s work ranges from resolving conflicts between individuals to delivering training advice.

She sees a steady growing demand for HR consultancy, especially to deal with the workload created by re-structuring and redundancy.

But if college management is paying the bill, can outside HR help be even-handed? “When you’re being paid by the college they want you to deliver results,” Clyne says. “Although they’re likely to accept independent advice, if you say ‘I think management have got everything wrong’ you won’t be popular.” Rosner says the aim is for a ‘mutually agreed outcome’, to sort out disputes but admits that’s not always possible.

From the union perspective, outside HR consultants are a mixed blessing – ‘a curate’s egg’- according to Chris Powell, London regional official for UCU. “Increasingly in the last year or two in London, I’ve found myself dealing with them,” he says. “Some I have a great deal of time and respect for.

“They know their job; they’re focused and professional.

“But others I have a less positive view of – I’ve a number of experiences where, in my view, their intervention was unhelpful and exacerbated the situation. Some end up telling the senior management what to do rather than providing advice and options.

“In some places they seem to become the HR department – they hover around far too long. That baffles me – they don’t come cheap. Proper permanent staff should be appointed instead.”