QAA and Employee Engagement

twitter_avatar2Bournemouth University (BU) recently had a review by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education and achieved a ‘commended’ judgement for the quality of student learning opportunities.  This is the first time the judgement of commended for this category, the highest award possible, has been received by any university.  The term ‘learning opportunities’ describes the different mechanisms and facilities that a university provides in order to enable a student to succeed. For this category, the QAA look at many areas of how an institution supports students, including the quality of teaching students receive, academic support, the resources available to students including the library and IT facilities, and the general support they receive.

The review identified a number of examples of good practice which led to the award. These included the many ways in which BU works to engage and involve all members of staff in its mission, values and strategic priorities, including those articulated in its Strategic Plan. The review also highlighted the way that the University engages students individually and collectively through the Students’ Union, in its development of academic strategy and policy.

Employee Engagement

‘Employee Engagement’ is a contested term (Kular et al, 2008) and lacks clear definition.  At BU we think of employee engagement in two ways; firstly for staff to have the ability, motivation and opportunity to fulfil their roles, which is similar to the research undertaken by Towers Perrin in the US (2003), and secondly for staff to have the opportunity to contribute to the life and development of the organisation.

How We Engaged Employees in the Development of our Strategic Plan

Phase One

In the Spring Term of 2011, before the long-awaited government white paper on Higher Education (HE), we organised a series of ‘Conversation Events’ for all staff and students where we asked them what they valued about the organisation that they would not want to change, regardless of what was set out in the white paper.  The idea was that once the white paper was published we would have a number of options, and we wanted the options to be grounded in what staff and students valued about BU.  The events were attended by hundreds of staff and the Students’ Union encouraged students to attend too and they made a valuable contribution to the debate.  We noticed at this stage that there was low participation from staff in lower grades who thought that they did not have anything to contribute and so we organised a specific session for them so that their voices could also be heard.

Phase Two

The data from the Conversation Events was analysed using a Grounded Theory methodology and, following the publication of the white paper, was used to form the basis of further discussions with the Students’ Union and University Board.  From this work came a series of proposals that we that we took back to hundreds of staff and students in the Summer Term 2011 and said to them ‘this is what you said, is this you meant?’ and ‘if this is what you want us to do then what values do we need to live by in order for this to happen’?  From these sessions we were able to refine the aspirations of staff and students into a plan that included a Vision that focused on the concept of ‘Fusion’ for staff and students; three Strategic Themes: Creating, Sharing and Inspiring; three Strategic Enablers: People, Environment and Finance; five values: Excellence, Achievement, Authenticity, Creativity and Responsibility.

Phase Three

In the Autumn Term 2011 we held a series of Strategy Focus Groups that focused on the Vision for BU2018, the Strategic Themes and the Strategic Enablers, taking one topic for each Focus Group.  At these sessions we shared the draft plans that supported the Vision that would make up our Strategic Plan.  Once again the event was attended by hundreds of staff and some students, including representatives from the Students’ Union.

Phase Four

During the rest of the academic year 2011/12 Schools and Professional Services worked to develop local Delivery Plans that would support the achievement of the Vision set out in BU2018 for the next six years and which would form the basis of their annual Delivery Plans for the next six years.  The Strategy was launched in September 2012, by which time many staff were already ‘living the Vision’ and aspiring to achieve it.

What Happened Next

We still have a lot of work to do in order to deliver on the ambitious aspirations set out in the Plan and we continue to run focused employee engagement sessions on how we are working to deliver on those aspirations.  For example, we have just completed a series of informal discussion groups with hundreds of academic staff on the ways in which we can embed ‘Fusion’ into the academic career framework; we ran focus groups with 100 staff across the organisation (at all levels) on the type of leaders we need to achieve BU2018 and how they need to be supported and developed and the outputs from these have formed the basis of our Leadership Strategy launched in 2013; we have held focused engagement sessions with staff affected organisational level projects, such as  the ‘Student Journey Project’; and we are just about to engage staff in dialogue on how they think we should define, identify and support talent within the organisation. 

It has been a busy time!  It is great that this form of employee engagement is being recognised externally, as well as being appreciated by staff internally.   Despite all this hard work it does not mean that everyone has engaged, or that everyone is engaged – but a few mavericks are healthy in an organisational context aren’t they? How do you define employee engagement in your institution and how are you facilitating it?

Colleen Harding


Kular, S., Gatenby, M., Rees, C., Soane, E. & Truss, K. (2008) Employee Engagement: A Literature Review, Kingston Business School Working Paper Series No. 19 [Accessed 25/09/13]Towers Perrin (2003) Working Today: Understanding What Drives Employee Engagement, [Accessed 25/09/13]