Case study on the University of Lincoln: financial education designed for employees

Ian Hodson, Head of Reward, University of Lincoln, sits down with WEALTH at work to discuss the financial education programmes it has in place for its employees and how this has helped benefit their financial wellbeing. As well as this, Ian talks through the award winning financial education workshops designed specifically for the university’s students.

Q: Do you provide a financial education programme?

At the University of Lincoln we have a financial education programme which is quite well established and we’ve been establishing it further over the last 2 or 3 years. We actually find now that it sits as part of our main employee benefits package and is available to all of our employees.

Q: Can you explain what this contains?

Our financial education programme is all based around disseminating information and we very much strive for a layered learning approach. So we try to make sure that people don’t see financial education as a one stop shop, actually what they see it as is informing knowledge that builds up during their time of employment at the University of Lincoln. Over the past few years we’ve seen that really grow, as well, from just being about our staff members, to also now having an offering for our students. This is really delivered with a mix of online learning and then embedding that knowledge through some interactive workshops, which we deliver as well.

Q: Who do you target?

We target all employees with our [financial education] programmes. So we look at the different stages of their employment and what might be more meaningful to them. Our main programme focusses on people in their early, mid or late stage of their career. Where we don’t specifically put people into their different categories, we say, “Whatever feels comfortable for you, for your stage of financial development.” The early career sessions might be ideal for our intern group for example, helping them save for the first time, and helping breakdown some of the terminology, around areas like pensions. The same with our financial fairy tales programme, which is what we offer for students and that’s very much around focusing on their time here, as they’re studying and developing life skills. So we start off very much talking about managing money for the first time, and planning budgets. In year 2 we focus on starting to work alongside their studies, perhaps earning for the first time, when things like tax codes can come into play. And then in the final year we have a programme which very much focusses on getting graduating students ready for the workplace. Really getting them ready to pass on the baton to employers and developing their skill of looking at rewards packages, being a savvy saver, before they get into the workplace.

Q What topics are covered?

What we’re finding is that we cover a lot of very similar key topics but we take a different angle with each audience, depending on what stage people are at. If you take something as simple as understanding pensions, then in the Early Career and Financial Fairy Tales programme, we’re very much just introducing the concept and it’s a different sort of message, because we’re talking to people about something that they perhaps won’t see as important to them for another 50 or so years. In the later sessions, for those people who are towards the end of their career, where they’re starting to really make sure that they have savings in place, we put a real focus on making sure that retirement is affordable. We put a focus on making sure that they know what decisions they’ve got to take. We look at things like tax codes, we look at things like the salary sacrifice schemes that we offer here, helping people understand those, we look at things like high street savings and offerings we have in our benefits package that we want people just to understand. As well as then breaking down some of the terminology we’re seeing in government and legislation, and around different workplace saving vehicles. A popular theme of the minute is about talking to individuals about Lifetime ISA’s. So a government incentive, but very much needing that voice of the employer to just help them understand what that means.

Q: What is the main objective for such a programme?

Our financial education programme 3 – 4 years ago had a number of big drivers behind it. Some of those were external; we had a lot of legislation changes coming into our workplace, with auto- enrolment, removal of default retirement age, a lowering of the Annual & Lifetime Allowances. Plus then we had a lot of internal drivers, over a very diverse workforce, so we see lots of different social generations all working together, where there’s very many different needs. Our response to all of these changes was to think about how financial education needed to be implemented. With all the changes we wanted our workforce to feel informed in their decision making rather than reading our press releases and seeing the words in the media and having to translate the words themselves and misunderstanding or worse missing an opportunity.

Q: Who is your financial education provider and how do they help you achieve your objectives?

When we were looking for a provider to work with us, one of the most important things that we were looking for is someone who could be flexible, to understand us as an employer. We knew that an off-the-shelf approach to financial education wouldn’t necessarily work. Because higher education is a unique environment, and like with any employer, there’s the specific things that only affect that workplace, we had very specific needs. We went out to market and we found a supplier called WEALTH at work, who were willing to come into our workplace, see how we operate, understand our pension schemes, so that they could very much bridge that gap between the external knowledge, but equally knowing how things work internally for us. If we’re having individuals that want to talk about specifics, about our reward package, or what’s available from the University, then they’re also able to provide that as well. So it’s very much like having another internal partner involved with us, in terms of how our relationship operates.

Q: Why do you believe financial education is important?

I think what we’ve seen in the workplace, and certainly in our sector, is a gradual transition from the more traditional approach to benefits, which may have been about the pay, the good defined benefits pension, good annual leave entitlement and good sickness policies, to more of that private sector approach, where we’re all actually competing for the same labour markets now. We know that the pension schemes now have to change to one where the employee has more of a say in their options and their saving habits plus there’s a lot more saving vehicles out there for them to consider. Equally our whole benefits package has had to be a lot more reactive to the workforce we’re trying to attract and retain. I think [in] our sector, we’ve very much been an early pioneer of the approach to financial education, in terms of how we’ve approached it, but we see lots of other universities now in a very similar position.  I think we’re all going to get to the same place acknowledging the importance of this type of education in the workplace throughout your working life, but we’ll probably all just get there at different stages.

Q: What did the financial education programme consist of and how was it rolled out?

In terms of our financial education programme, I wouldn’t say that we always got it right first time, and that’s where it’s been really good working with WEALTH at work and accepting the fact that occasionally we’ve had to tweak the messages or change the approach. I think with financial education there are a lot of barriers in terms of how you can communicate the programme. Finance is a very personal matter, often people don’t like talking about it. Sometimes people assume that they know all this information already and one of the big messages that we always get back is that people don’t know what they don’t know.  The challenge is often getting them into the workshops and there after they are engaged. We’ve tried a number of different communication methods before we’ve found something that really works. What we find at the minute, is a little bit of direct shock therapy, to almost say to people,  “Are you saving enough for retirement?” “What are your ambitions for later life?”. We find that is a bit of an awakening call for individuals, to get them to listen to the messages and challenge themselves. With our students we took a very different programme approach. We listened to how the students wanted their material delivered, so it’s a much more gamified and fun approach. The Financial Fairy Tales programme is all geared around “making the magic beans go further” but underneath the sessions is the very real messages, which are talking about saving, managing money for the first time, working in multiple employments and equally looking at how your employer can play a part in helping you become more financially savvy.

Q: What was the take up of financial education?

We’ve certainly seen a growth in financial education and a lot of that has been through using work based champions. There are barriers in place to get people to engage initially and we’ll always say to somebody who is thinking initially about implementing financial education, don’t give up if take up is low to start with because this is something that builds up over time and that engagement does come eventually. What we found is that the strongest voice is really that coming from peers. We have done a lot of work with WEALTH at work to capture case studies from individuals who’ve been on sessions. Equally to capture some testimonials from people, in terms of what they found. We also created some good quantitative data, in terms of catching results and aspects about what individuals learned during the sessions, by measuring their knowledge – before and after. It’s having a big impact on people going. Our take up has increased gradually over time now, where the programme is now self-maintained and running its self, we only have to signal we are running the workshops and we get good take up. That’s a place we’ve got to through having our workforce see financial education as part of their rewards and benefits package and knowing that it’s very much a learning experience that is always going to be there and that it’s constantly updated to take into account what’s going on in the world. Employees keep coming back and they get more development that way.

Q: How do you keep your employees informed in the long term?

I see financial education very much as, what we would call, layered learning. One of the big challenges for us has been having financial education seen by the workforce as something that isn’t just, ‘you come along to a session and then you’ve got this knowledge’. What we want individuals to do is to keep coming back. So we want the education programme to be seen almost as development and personal development for them and that builds up throughout their employment at the University – as things become relevant, when perhaps they’re not previously. A good example that we’ll always give to this is sometimes some of the things that we offer in our benefits package aren’t relevant to somebody when they start at the University. That might be ways they can save money through to how they commute to work, or it may be through things like work place child care schemes. However, later on in their career it may be that these become relevant. So we try to make sure that with financial education,  people keep dipping in, to understand what’s changing, in terms of government and policy and what’s available to them, because things become relevant to different people at different times in their career. Hopefully with our programme now we’re at the stage where individuals keep coming back  we want them dipping in, every couple of years, just to layer up their next  knowledge in financial education, so that they’ve got information to make informed decisions.

Q: Now financial education is in place what is the next step?

Financial Education in the workplace has become really important, particularly for us in our sector because I think traditionally we steered away from what is education, at the risk of being seen as financial advisors. We’d often hear that statement of, “We can’t give financial advice”, and I think, to the detriment, what that’s meant is that we haven’t always imparted the information that we could have done into employees. So now I think financial education has a meaningful agenda – and is making a true comeback. I think that to make sure that individuals are receiving the knowledge that they need-  the next stage for us now is being able to turn those informed decisions into, what will probably be a need for financial advice. We work with WEALTH at work to offer individuals the chance to follow up on the workshops and go onto receive financial advice so that they can really take that next step with their decisions. We’re very excited to see that the government is getting behind this sort of initiative and with all the changes we’ve seen this year, in terms of tax free benefits, it’s supportive to see that the government are allowing additional tax free allowances around the financial advice in the work place. We for one will be looking to see how we pass that on to employees in terms of how they can access that.

Q: Do you think the programme has helped your employee’s financial wellbeing?

I think over the past couple of years what we’ve seen is our financial education programme has been very much a transition into being part of our wellbeing agenda. So that traditional approach to wellbeing, which has always been around physical wellbeing and then on to mental wellbeing, we now see our financial education programme as the third stream to that. Financial wellbeing is clearly embedded here now. What we mean by that is that it’s got 2 strands, firstly it’s around trying to be proactive, so we know how significant financial matters can be as a stresser and we see it coming through in our workforce. We have a very international workforce, we bring a lot of people from overseas, and often the impact of coming to the UK to work, and just being financially secure, can often be under estimated. We’ve seen an increase in employees looking to us, as an employer, for personal loans. And equally we see a lot more of that spill over between home life and work life, and as we come out of the back of some challenging times of austerity, we see it impacting more on people. Our financial wellbeing programme is very much aimed at being pro-active. We look to put that education in place, so that people don’t necessarily fall into the risks and the high street lending that we often see. Secondly and equally we work on the  reactive side the programme brings into play, raising awareness about our employee assistance programme and if people are in financial difficulties that is equally flagged up and supportive mechanisms discussed. So it’s very much an all-round wellbeing programme that we offer now.

Q: what feedback have you received from your employees about the programme?

I think the biggest testimony to us, as part of our programme, has been the feedback that we’ve had from individuals where we’ve seen that they’ve really taken a decision that’s had a significant impact to them. That might be through their choice of benefit or it might be through their choice of pension. It may be that they’ve started an AVC, where perhaps the terminology of an AVC has been off putting to them in the past, but actually once we’ve explained it to them, they see the real benefit that that has to offer.  I always like to think the strongest aspect of our scheme has been through some of the individual feedback that we’ve had, from colleagues and some of the statements that we get from people, where they’re saying what a difference it has made. When we have to measure a return on our programme, we do like to think about measuring that success of people’s knowledge before the session and then their knowledge afterwards. If that means that they are making some informed decisions, and if that means that they’re better financially aware and can plan for what happens throughout all the different working stages of their career, then as an employer we think we’re offering something of value.

Q: In terms of financial education, what else does the university have planned for its employees?

In terms of financial education in the future, I think the next stages for that now is to see it move on from not just being part of the wellbeing agenda, but see it form part of the development programme. We’re just looking at how we make that transition now. We know that coming into the work force, personal and professional development for the millennials is really important, in terms of what they want to see us offering. So we’re just looking at how development programmes can be enhanced through offering financial education as part of that. We are looking at how we incorporate it into things like our intern programme, to be a module that gets taken to individuals as part of their personal and professional development.

Q: Have you introduced any financial education programmes for your students?

At the university, once we’d got our main financial education programme in place for employees, we realised that there was a section of the work force which we perhaps hadn’t covered being our student workers. Through our campus jobs function, we aim to give students their first opportunities to work, alongside their studies. We have around 55 different jobs that students can do on campus and we have about a thousand students who engage with this programme, where perhaps the pay and benefits aren’t quite as enhanced as what they would be if you were a full time employee. As part of running a roundtable workshop with the students, we asked them what financial education needed to look like for them and how that needed to be delivered. Some of the common aspects that were coming up were having multiple employments across the city, where understanding tax and national insurance rules was complicated. It was about understanding some of the terminology around auto-enrolment and being opted into pensions and some of the thought processes that needed to go alongside those decisions. On the back of that we started to design our workshops and delivery material and we started to pull together what became the Financial Fairy Tales programme. The programme works aligned to the study period of 3 years with 9 workshops, all with gamified material but all talking to students and taking them on that journey, preparing them for the workplace and understanding financial matters and how they would need to understand this, not only just to get through their studies, but equally, when it comes to the work place. Our aim was to develop informed individuals, who were ready to be picked up by their employer for the journey to continue and for them to be able to demonstrate financial habits of being a good citizen.

Q: Would you recommend other companies introduce financial education to their employees?

I think when we look at what employee benefits packages need to cover now; there is a huge aspect which isn’t around the high street savings and some of the traditional workplace things that we see. There is a big concept now about wellbeing, development, financial matters and the big choices that individuals have in their life about decisions like when they want to retire, which is predominately based on when they can afford to retire. These decisions are now very flexible and very significant. I think to any employer we would be saying, “Well if you’re not offering financial education and wellbeing support at the minute – when are you going to do it? Because you’re going to have to sooner or later.” It is going to become a big aspect of how we look after our workforce, as individuals continue to work to much later years in their life and the choice of when to retire is very much open to individual interpretation now. It also incorporates a lot of the wider social issues that we see brought in to the workplace.

Q: Have you found any differences with how employees approach having savings?

I thinks one of the things that we’re finding in the workplace now, is that we do have a very diverse working population. What we’re finding is that saving habits are very different now to what they perhaps were 10 – 15 years ago. We have a work force now, where perhaps people coming to the later stages of their career have always worked at a time where they started saving on day one for later life and for what happens during retirement. Whereas the people who we see entering the workforce now, particularly coming from higher education, for example – as part of our intern programme, are very much talking about a very different style of saving habit.  When we talk to them about financial goals, their financial goal often isn’t about retirement to start with; it’s getting out of rented property and getting onto the property ladder. Perhaps this is followed then by the second phase, which is more about putting children through education, which is a little bit more costly now. Then perhaps that’s when they start thinking about what happens later on. So what we’re seeing is a real diverse mix in the workforce, about savings habits. And it’s not the one size fits all approach any more, it depends on the individual, it depends on the stage of career that they’re at and it depends very much on their own lifestyle. We try to make sure with WEALTH at work that our workshops cater for all individuals.

Q: How do your workshops run?

When we sat down and we started designing the workshops with WEALTH at work, we very much started off with a blank piece of paper about how these needed to work. We started off with a model which was about disseminating information. When we ran pilot workshops some of the feedback we were getting was that people wanted to get more involved, or they wanted to take it in a certain direction themselves. We listened to that feedback and changed the design and now our workshops are very much more interactive with breakout group and personal reflection activities. They’re very much more about giving individuals the chance to contribute, and in the breakout sessions, we have mini tasks where perhaps individuals can look at how you form a basic financial planning tool, or how do you consider if you have enough saved for retirement, or how much do you need to have the retirement that you want to. We make them really interactive with exercises.  We make sure that each workshop finishes with a take away hand out of the key summary points but equally there is a space on the handout where individuals can record their actions that they want to complete after the session. We see lots of things recorded, whether that’s simply to remember to check which pension provider they were in with previous employers or whether it is simply remembering to tell a financial saver that they’ve moved house. We try to encourage them to make some actions and then take actions based on attending the workshops.

Q: How do you encourage engagement in your workshops?

In terms of the marketing material that we use, we’ve tried a number of different aspects but we do try to use online videos to promote the workshops. We use different engagement materials, for the student programme and we very much have a real presence at things like our fresher events. Where we have an inflatable giant goal that we use, which is all about achieving your financial goals, because we find that gives us the opportunity to break the ice with individuals to then talk about the programme. It’s very much a concept that we use throughout the whole initiative.

Q: How do you engage your employees to attend workshops?

In terms of our main workforce and how they gain an understanding of the programme -they know it’s out there and available. We feed our marketing materials right through our employee journey- and as part of our on-boarding for new individuals; they receive information about the financial education programme as part of their welcome pack. We then get the chance to talk to them at our induction sessions, where we host a roundtable about our benefits programme. We make sure that individuals understand the importance of the programme and there’s never a more pressing time for them than when they start employment to get those key messages across around our pension schemes, our savings vehicles and our benefits package because that’s when it has a real impact. When we’re actually launching a new session of workshops, we go online. We know that it has to be accessible to individuals and it needs to be relevant to them, when they’ve got time. We use digital e-vites for individuals. We also have marketing materials that are online and then we have physical posters, because they do still play a place in our workforce that create a physical awareness that the programme is there and individuals can come and join us on our financial education workshop.

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Q: How have you seen financial education develop in recent years?

I think one of the big changes for us in the last couple of years, has been seeing the government actually get behind financial education. It’s perhaps completing their piece of the picture, in terms of auto-enrolment, and making sure that having introduced workplace savings as a general initiative, those individuals are actually receiving the education they need to sit alongside it.  I think the decision that the government made to make sure that financial education was part of the secondary school curriculum, has been a significant game changer for the landscape. Now as a university, and certainly with our students, we carry on that journey as they come to us. I think now what we’ve got to see are employers equally picking up the baton as our students enter their workplace. I think now there is an expectation from individuals that the financial education and wellbeing development will be completed whilst you’re in employment. So I think we are now seeing financial education has got to be part of the employee’s benefits package and I hope to see more employers following the steps of our University and seeing some of the successes that we’ve seen as a result of our efforts working in partnership with WEALTH at work.