University administrators – ‘lovely and well-meaning’ but still below stairs

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In a recent piece in Times Higher Education an academic sought to explain why he was leaving the UK, blaming many aspects of our university system but reserving special criticism for administrators:

Then there’s the administration. Leaving aside the widely pilloried and Sisyphean administrative exercises known as the research excellence framework and now the teaching excellence framework (TEF), to put it simply we have in recent times witnessed an administrative coup in UK academia. In an article focusing on the University of Oxford but painting a picture that will be familiar to most academics, The Spectator wrote that the “university’s central administrative staff is now almost three times what it was 15 years ago. There was no similar increase in full-time academic staff, the people who teach students or do research…”

An administrative “coup”? Really? It’s been a pretty subtle one if so and the author’s inability to distinguish between externally imposed regulation and assessment and the administrative support required to enable universities to deal with this bureaucracy, protect academics from its worst excesses as well as helping keeping everything else moving is unfortunate to say the least.

This line from the Spectator, supplied from the exotic surroundings of the Oxford senior common room is equally off beam. In noting there are more administrators than there used to be at Oxford (and therefore everywhere) the writer finds it easy to conclude that these administrators are unnecessary and, it seems, quite dispensable:

The figures elicited, not for the first time, an exasperated outburst from Peter Oppenheimer, an academic formerly at Christ Church, who vented his spleen in an enjoyable article in the Oxford Magazine. As he observed, ‘A defensible estimate is that at least 500 (of the administrators) are surplus to requirements for the effective running of the university. The corresponding unnecessary annual cost is around £1,500 per Oxford student (all 20,000 of them) per year, plus extensive non-quantifiable academic damage.’ That amounts to £90 million a year for admin — you can buy lots of professors for that.

It gets better:

And the problem of burgeoning bureaucracy helps explain some worrying trends, foremost being a perceptible decline in academic standards over time (it’s evident in grade inflation; there are three times as many Oxford Firsts now as there were 30 years ago).

So there you have it from the Spectator, not only are there too many administrators where there should be academics, they are responsible for grade inflation and the decline in academic standards. It’s difficult not to be irritated by this kind of nonsense. But then to return to the original THE piece, we find even more crass commentary on the growth in the number of administrators:

I won’t speculate here on the many reasons why this might be, rather I’ll merely point out that an increase in administrators – lovely and well-meaning as most of them are as individuals – naturally does not do what you might naively expect, ie, take care of the administration so that academics can focus on academic work. No, instead it breeds ever more complex administrative mazes that are not just difficult to navigate but are de facto becoming the main part of the job. Kafkaesque would not be pushing it too far by any means.

It takes something really special to be quite so exceptionally patronising and professionally insulting in the same paragraph. Fortunately, others were equally appalled by this including Charles Knight who sought to stress how much he loved administrators:

I’m just going to come out and say something that many academics would find shameful and perverted – I love my administrators.

I like interacting with them, I like bouncing ideas off them and I appreciate it when they come to me with ideas about how we can get involved with changes to university policy and process. Like any relationship, we have our ups and downs (“did you not read my flowchart on how to simplify that process?”) but I think overall our administrators (and all the services roles) make me a better academic and give our university a stronger and more vibrant culture.

The piece goes on to note the vital role played by administrators in relation to graduation, exam boards, legal and governance matters as well student recruitment and teaching and learning support. He then concludes:

The real reason I love my administrators, however, is that I truly have never felt that at Edge Hill University there is this hard divide between academics and administrators – and that doesn’t just refer to processes; it’s about culture and values.

Thank you Charles.

Then there was this ramshackle piece in the Guardian very recently which sought to portray much of the work done by professional services staff as “bullshit jobs”, devoid of value or purpose and in need of elimination in order that academic staff can pursue the real work of the university unimpeded. A spectacularly awful article.

Front of the line

Some years ago I wrote a piece for Times Higher Education on the problem with the term ‘back office’ and the often casual, unthinking use of it in order to identify a large group of staff who play a key role in the effective running of universities but who often find themselves treated as second class citizens. These administrators are often regarded as expendable and viewed as if they were Victorian servants who generally remain ‘below stairs’. They would also, I am sure, fit into the category of ‘lovely and well-meaning’.

More recently I posted here on Registrarism on how administrators always seemed to be first in line for the chop and were seen by some as unnecessary overheads and therefore easily removed.

Leaving aside the fact that many professional staff, for example those involved in student recruitment, careers work, counselling, financial advice, academic support, security and library operations are unequivocally front-line, the idea that the other staff who help the institution function and who support academic staff in their teaching and research are merely unnecessary overheads, ripe for cutting back, is just not credible.

This line would not cut much ice with the academic author of the THE piece nor the Guardian’s organisational behaviour expert who decried “empty administration”, both of whom seem to imagine that the administrators are mainly focused on making life harder for the faculty. However, if academic staff are to deliver on their core responsibilities for teaching and research it is essential that all the services they and the university need are provided efficiently and effectively. There is not much point in hiring a world-leading scholar if she has to do her all her own photocopying, spend a day a week sorting out software updates or washing the windows because there aren’t any other staff to do this work. These services are required and staff are needed to do this work to ensure academics are not unnecessarily distracted from their primary duties. This is what administrators do.

Although provision of such services is not in itself sufficient for institutional success, it is hugely important for creating and sustaining an environment where the best-quality teaching and research can be delivered.

This is not an administrative coup and anyone who sees administrators as merely as ‘lovely and well-meaning’ but ultimately ineffectual and expendable really does need to think a bit more about how universities really work. We are all pulling in the same direction and administrators are dedicated to enabling institutional success not scuppering it. So please, feel the love, join Charles Knight and celebrate the contribution everyone makes, academics and administrators alike, to our wonderful universities.

28 thoughts on “University administrators – ‘lovely and well-meaning’ but still below stairs”

  1. University Administrator says:

    Well written. The Guardian piece was especially shocking, I would class it at around the same level as clickbait. Poorly sourced with no real examples or evidence – the point about pensions is especially galling – we’re not all in USS.

    Nobody is saying, even for a moment, that “empty” administration doesn’t exist. But it is nowhere near as rife as some of these articles suggest.

    As is hinted above the real reason for the rise in administration is the rise in regulatory requirements.

    Direct your ire at UKBA. HMRC, HEFCE, HESA, OFFA and the rest. In the meantime we’ll be over here ensuring that the University doesn’t go bust tomorrow or get dragged into a tabloid “scandal” around Tier 4 compliance.

  2. Bill Cooke says:

    Actually, no. This self-serving, victimhood is shocking, and part of the problem. It is a long version of the archetypal ‘academics’ plus eyeroll that prevails. The Guardian article was very specific in where the admin problem was evident – REF, TEF, Ranking implementation, and more generally, in the rise of universities where more than half the white collar staff are administrators.

    Here’s some things to throw at you in my recent experience of the top of my head.

    1) Being told – not asked – by someone with an MA in English in the central registarr- to change module titles that a team of PhD ECRs to Professors had worked hard on to develop, in discussion with students and externals. Because ? Well, because we are telling you, and no, no further discussion.
    2) Having classes scheduled to ‘maximize the use of the estate’; and when objecting to classes that finish at 6 on a Friday, and start at 8 on a Monday on a given course, that ‘we have to get used to normal business practice’. We do But the students find it difficult, rightly complain, and it is our NSS scores that are given the blame.
    3) The implementation of REF and TEF above and beyond the letter and the spirit of the HEFCE/Govt requirements. But while enforcing this implementation, making the academics do the actual work.
    4)Administrative staff making career changing judgements on the intellectual quality of scholarly work, and of teaching.
    5) Times Higher Awards for adminstrators called award for University Leadership. Because for an institution intended to do teaching and research, their leadership is in the hands of people who do neither
    6) Senior adminstrative enforcers of student services, who regard themselves custodians of the student experience nonetheless unable to stand in front of a group of 20 odd students and speak coherently or audibly for 5 minutes.
    7) Administrative establishment of student surveys which enable the bullying and sexual harrasment of teaching staff, and ensuring that that disgusting behaviour continues with impunity. There’s a class action coming, guys.
    8) Junior, graduate admin staff on better salaries and terms and conditions than junior academic staff with PhDs, publications, and massive teaching responsibilities.

    And here’s the choker:

    7) Detailed, ritualistic strategic planning processes, risk assessment registers, consuming alll colleagues time. But when we ask, say 18 months ago, what are the University’s contingencies for Brexit, a ‘don’t be silly’ giggle and glances exchanged on the admin team in the room.

    And of course, what is hated most is those of us who have had careers outside the University, who can see quite clearly who and what adds value, and what doesn’t.

    Good administrators are worth their weight in gold, the best are geniuses. But this does not mean there isn’t a problem.

  3. Carol Burns says:

    I am reminded here of the “pencil skirted administrator” observation in the THE some years ago. As I worked at the time in the institution the perpetrator of this epithet had just left, I can tell you that I had several seriously upset professional services staff in to see me; people who worked hard to support students (and had also supported the offending writer) and believed – rightly – that they were making a difference to student success. None of them would have been seen dead in a pencil skirt by the way.

    On one level, we can say, heyho; these conversations come in waves but the show must go on. But every wave causes upset and division and, most importantly, is a disservice to students who are entitled to expect joined up and grown up behaviour from all university staff.

    Let’s give our administrators some credit and start from the assumption that everyone wants to do a good and reasonably meaningful job. Where genuinely “empty” administration is found we can then work respectfully together to eliminate it.

  4. Steven Burnett says:

    Having working in university administration for some years I must say that I find the constant rehearsing of this age-old ‘debate’ to be tedious and enervating. Does the opinion of a single, clearly partial academic really warrant this degree of navel gazing? It would be so much more refreshing if the ‘profession’ had sufficient self-confidence in its worth such that there’s no perceived need to defend a position. It smacks of protesting too much. Yes, administration is necessary and should be valued. Now lets move on.

  5. I was going to say more about this, but Bill Cooke gets the point across well. That supposedly ‘ramshackle’ article refers to a laundry list of issues where administrative waste is indeed implicated. I don’t the see the article as calling for the elimination of all administrators — only those who don’t facilitate the university’s mission but who are there for reasons driven exclusively by the administrators themselves. Here the generalised promise of high salaries can create an illusory sense of importance to administrators, which can lead to the pathologies that Spicer identifies in his Guardian piece. However, no one denies that administrators are vital to the facilitation of academic work, and that they should be rewarded appropriately — insofar as they facilitate academic work.

  6. Phil Purnell says:

    Hello? Divide and conquer anyone? First Adonis, now this… yes there’s too much low-value admin but hey – there’s often too much low-value scholarship as well. Can we please try and focus on presenting the things we (note pronoun) do well to the world, and deal internally with improving the effectiveness of the things that they (note pronoun again; works both ways) do to and for us?

    This barrage of coordinated attacks on academia, be it pillorying VCs, wheeling out of discredited Profs, moronic moaning at ‘them’, REF TEF GEF XEF GJUTFU-EF or whatever is not an accident. Capital is not making money out of academia and they don’t why they should be shut out (q.v. the NHS). This is the thin end of a blue wedge. United front please.

  7. University Administrator says:

    Fair comment

  8. University Administrator says:

    @Bill Cooke
    I think we’re arguing many of the same points. I have disdain for the Guardian article because it made little effort to provide citations or back up claims, instead relying on sensationalist language. It would have been more credible if the authors new work wasn’t plugged at the bottom.

    You took the time to back up some of your claims and that is commendable (and I’m sure cathartic for you). But as Phil Purnell says in comment #6 I’m also sure that many administrators can reel off just as many examples of poor or low-value scholarship.

    As Phil Purnell also says though maybe instead of pointing these things out in public we should be focussing our energies on the things we all do well together – of which there is many, and on working together to reduce the burden from the regulatory examples I provided as well as yours.

    Of course “empty” administration exists, and where a task doesn’t lead to some greater (worthwhile) purpose of course that administration should be eradicated. Given the pressure on budgets I can’t believe there isn’t a University out there that isn’t working on this already. Mine certainly is.

  9. Homer Simpson says:

    >Being told – not asked – by someone with an MA in English in the central registarr- to change module titles that a team of PhD ECRs to Professors

    Regardless of who was right or wrong, the way you phrase this shows intellectual snobbery. “We have PhDs therefore we know better” is an awful attitude to take.

  10. Bill Cooke says:

    No its really not. I mean, if you think the PhDs we offer are worthless and give their holders no ‘extra’ intellectual expertise, then just say so, and we can close the programs down.The whole point of PhDs, is actually, they do show people know better. And if you think a team of specialists with years of training are rightly over-ridden by someone with no specialist knowledge but with the administrative power to do so, and ignore requests for dialogue, then I put it to you, you are the snob. But hey, maybe the person from the registry should teach the courses, because suggesting otherwise would be intellectual snobbery.

  11. Bill Cooke says:

    Well, I read it online, and there there were lots of live links to back up the claims made, so it was referenced. Not in hardcopy mind.

    It was of course a cathartic rant. But written in 10 mins on the train. Imagine if I was sat at my desk.

    But fundamentally, I am going to call you on your “But as Phil Purnell says in comment #6 I’m also sure that many administrators can reel off just as many examples of poor or low-value scholarship.”

    For a university’s primary task, there is not the equivalence between admin, and scholarship that you suggest.

    Academics deliver what universities are for, its scholarship, in research or teaching.

    Its a bummer for admin colleagues, because it means while academics are actually obliged to debate what is good admin in support of that task, there is no reciprocity. Administrators do not, or should not, have the authority to decide what comprises good scholarship, good research, any more than any citizen. They haven’t done the training, and are not qualified.

    Moreover, that an adminstrator thinks it is ok for them to use the term ‘low-value research’, let alone make judgements about what it comprises confirms something is rotten.

    And that rot is that too many adminstrators in universities consider themselves as regulators of scholarly work, rather (than as the good administrators are) its facilitator.

    That was cathartic, too.

    1. Frustrated Administrator says:

      @Bill Cooke
      You really are losing the run of yourself, here. I sympathise with much of what you say, but a clever polemic doesn’t always make a valid point.

      We could sling examples back and forth of poor work done by academics and administrators alike. I’ve seen countless examples of academic colleagues taking administrators (with qualifications in accounting, marketing, you name it!) to task on something that they have no qualification in that area themselves to fall back on. The issue there is about mutual respect, and that counts as much for the administrator who falls back on a rule book, as in your example, as for an academic who should respect the professional advice of the people employed to do whatever job it is they’re doing!

      I also found your anecdote of “senior administrative enforcers of student experience” being unable to stand in front of groups of students and speak coherently interesting. I myself have experience of academic staff being exactly the same, except in this case they were lecturing- apparently part of their job. This is also an anecdote.

      For all that I feel there could be some interesting discussion to be had in the back and forth on your first comment, I won’t engage in it fully, however, because I was genuinely amazed by your subsequent comments.

      All staff working for a University deliver what it’s for, not just academics. Try getting rid of administrators, support staff, and all the rest, and see what happens. To devalue the work of all such staff unilaterally smacks of rank arrogance. I’m reminded of the story- probably apocryphal- of the cleaner who, when asked what he did at NASA, replied, “I put men on the moon”. No doubt you’d have similar disdain for someone like that who, in whatever small part, contributes to the successful delivery of the mission of the organisation for which they work?

      I absolutely agree with you it isn’t the place for adminstrators to decide what good scholarship looks like, or pronounce on “low-value research”. But they don’t do that, and we should all be honest with ourselves here and stop blaming administrators for the burdens of external regulation. The REFs and the TEFs of this world are comprised of panels of academics. That’s exactly what you’re asking for. That’s exactly what you’re getting. It’s not the administrators’ fault to report the findings, however much we may disagree with the methodology or debate the necessity of these exercises.

      if you think a team of specialists with years of training are rightly over-ridden by someone with no specialist knowledge but with the academic power to get away with saying whatever they want, and ignore requests for dialogue, then I put it to you, you are the snob.

      Or we could, you know, try and work together, in a spirit of mutual respect, calling out bad practice where it is rather than painting with broad brushstrokes and relying on lazy stereotypes. I like to believe that my academic and administrative colleagues are better than this.

      For reference, I am sat at my desk.

  12. Phil Purnell says:

    The pilots in the RAF deliver what the RAF is for; dropping bombs, shooting down planes and delivering toilet rolls to Camp Bastion. Does this mean that the army (pun intended) of fitters, comms specialists, cooks, stores clerks etc. should have no say in how the payloads are delivered?

    A crude and ill informed analogy, but hopefully you get the point.

    I think administrators have as much right to – armed with the proper data – call out poor scholarship as academics have – similarly armed – to call out pointless admin. One would hope that each community would police itself, but each can also be a critical friend to the other. This horribly divisive debate sets a culture where this kind of debate cannot happen, further entrenching internal suspicion and making us vulnerable to kind of risible old bollocks that certain Lords like to level at the sector.

    For the record – I’m a research group leader, teaching active, with a VC-office level position as well. I also hate the amount of pointless admin that pervades university, but recognise that 90% of it comes from the demands of outside agencies, not admin staff. The other 10% I reserve the right to rail against.

  13. Mars Vinyl says:

    @ comment #8
    “Of course “empty” administration exists, and where a task doesn’t lead to some greater (worthwhile) purpose of course that administration should be eradicated. Given the pressure on budgets I can’t believe there isn’t a University out there that isn’t working on this already. Mine certainly is.”

    Could you please provide some details about how your University actually identifies/ defines ’empty administration’ and what specifically it is doing in this respect?
    And what is your opinion on REF and processes such as Professional Development Reviews? I have not seen any evidence that REF has driven up standards of scholarship nor have I seen any evidence that suggests that PDRs or similar control processes improve academics’ performance.

    On your other point: I think there is a bit of an expertise problem with regard to identifying ‘poor or low-level scholarship’ if one is an outsider to a field. If there was not, then why not put administrative staff in charge of REF instead of using mostly very handsomely paid academics to spend months evaluating the quality of research?

  14. Mars Vinyl says:

    @ comment 12
    “I think administrators have as much right to – armed with the proper data – call out poor scholarship as academics have – similarly armed – to call out pointless admin.”

    This is nonsense and you ought to know it: what exactly is this ‘proper data’ you mention? Where does it come from and how does it look like? Of course, one can look at citations or where something is published but this gives you only a superficial insight into the value. There are quite excellent papers that appear for some reason in poor journals and are therefore rarely cited. But does this indicate poor scholarship? I would suggest that the only meaningful evaluation of the quality of scholarship involves looking at the content – this is proper data! But how do you evaluate it if you have no expertise in the field or at least in a related field?

  15. Bob says:

    Better in what though? Naming degrees? Knowing student demand data? Knowing what’s best for a to student with mental health issues that you have no qualification for? Managing a team? A PhD shows intellectual rigor, and helps in discussions to ask salient questions, but it doesn’t make you gods gift across the academic spectrum. Likewise, the argument presented to you was flawed too, but still. Have some bloody respect and use your superior mind to ask the right questions if it get’s your goat so much.

  16. Homer Simpson says:

    @Bill Cooke

    It should be irrelevant whether the person in central registry has an MA, PhD, or 3 CSEs. All that should matter is whether they’re right or wrong. You should be angry that they didn’t have the knowledge to make the decision and did, not angry that they were able to make the decision while having a “lesser” qualification than you.

  17. farah3 says:

    “the author’s inability to distinguish between externally imposed regulation and assessment and the administrative support required to enable universities to deal with this bureaucracy, protect academics from its worst excesses as well as helping keeping everything else moving is unfortunate to say the least.” My reaction exactly. We have one basic customer and they impose huge compliance regs. I remember the days when academics had to try to meet them… not good.

  18. Phil Purnell says:

    RE #14: I wrote “poor scholarship”, not “systematic evaluation of the quality of research outputs”. There is more to scholarship than pumping out REF-able papers. I’m talking about calling out the academics – may of them senior – who do not make a full contribution to the scholarly ambitions of the University; those who shirk teaching, those who do not respond to students, those who repeatedly submit doomed research proposals, those who refuse to engage with the everyday academic drudgery necessary to oil the gears of a department. In short, those who make my life difficult and set up a target for external criticism.

    Similarly, I reserve the right to criticise administrators who prioritise process over product, meddle in academic decisions etc. but I don’t pretend to know how to e.g. navigate external-facing audits better than they do.

    I repeat my original point: academics and admins need to work together against the sustained attack on universities from neoliberal quasi-politicians like Adonis who will, by design or accident, open the door for privatisation a la the NHS. This squabbling is pointless and damaging.

  19. Lively discussion, yet with an at times slightly narky tone. A couple of observations: Many administrators are highly academically qualified, either before they took on their roles, or do qualify further while they work in HE. Some teach, some write and run modules. Some hold PhDs. Some pursued them and broke them off (like me), only then to find out that working on the non-academic side actually meant less paperwork than working as an academic – which is why I gladly stay on the non-academic side.
    Hasn’t stopped me from teaching and getting feedback from academic colleagues, learning how to work a marking scheme, giving individual feedback and signposting to academic colleagues. I personally think that the main issue is two-fold: a) there are too many (often fairly irrelevant to the students) regulatory frameworks applied to universities by government, and b) academic university leaders often haven’t stood (or sat for that matter) in a classroom teaching (and learning) under the current conditions. ‘Back the shop floor’ would help with getting rid of unworkable attendance procedures and ill-designed systems in many cases.
    It all works indeed best in places where there is a partnership approach and a low threshold to pass between academic and professional services. Respect for each others’ intellectual capacity, ability to recognise where one needs to make a change, commitment to improving academic and non-academic student experiences, and the pursuit of creating and sharing knowledge is what IMHO should drive working in a university.

  20. Jessicat says:

    There’s a lot I could say about this, but to pick up on this idea of what universities are ‘for’, I wonder whether it’s too simplistic to characterise the purpose of higher education as just delivering teaching and research. I mean, *yes*, teaching and research inasmuch as no-one is claiming the purpose of a university is to conduct administrative exercises, but from a student perspective higher education is about a lot more than just learning, and whilst administration supports the core institutional mission of delivering teaching and facilitating research, it also fulfils an array of other functions that are less about directly enabling scholarship to happen and more about enabling students to both access studenthood and, crucially, actually be awarded a qualification.

    We could run HEIs with fewer administrators if the extent of what they provided was the teaching contact hours students receive, if the core function of lectures, seminars, etc., was all that was involved in the experience and ratification of a degree. But it isn’t. And even what the ‘core function’ of a university is really depends a lot on who you are and what your role is. We can argue about whether universities are for students or students are for the university and how much pandering should take place and to whom, but realistically the majority of HE activity is orientated towards the ‘student experience’ given that such a large proportion of income (some HEIs more than others) is from tuition fees. We can at least be certain that without students we wouldn’t have universities.

    However, students engage with HE for a variety of reasons and for different purposes. Non-academic staff are perhaps more keenly aware of the fact that for many students the actual studying aspect of attending university can be relatively minor, and that students expect a lot more from their institution than simply the provision of scheduled teaching. This perhaps does create tension sometimes with academic colleagues who in some cases may naturally forget that the scholarly function they are primarily occupied with is only one aspect of their students’ lives both within and outside the institution. Likewise administrators, especially those in central services who rarely encounter academics and deal almost exclusively with the non-academic needs of students, can lose sight of the fact that the university’s stated purpose, at least, is knowledge production and dissemination and that facilitating this is the underlying raison d’etre of everyone working in HE.

    As others have pointed out, there are poor colleagues in both academia and administration, like there are poor employees in any industry. There are also administratively-minded academics and academically-minded administrators, and plenty of people who have experience working in both roles, so the camps are really not so distinct. I think people in general have difficulty respecting things they can’t see the point of, but not being able to see the point doesn’t necessarily make something pointless. I mean, there is a certain amount of pointlessness and wastage, of course, as well as tasks that seem arse-about-face or can only be achieved with a ludicrous workaround, but not because of any administrative conspiracy, just because large organisations, especially ones subject to so many external regulations and ‘competing’ against each other with such different resources, are challenging to run efficiently.

    A lot of the ‘problems’ with administrators that have been raised here are either far more systematic than it’s within the remit of administrative staff in general to affect, or far more specific to a few individual twats than it’s within the remit of administrative staff in general to take responsibility for. Being a good administrator doesn’t require a PhD, and likewise having a PhD doesn’t render anyone with an aptitude for administration. I’m sure we can all think of a few jobsworth admins with a great zeal for red tape and a few pompous profs who look down on anyone without a PhD and a Rapunzel list of publications, but amongst all that is the students, without whom none of us would have jobs. And in order to recruit and retain students we need to ensure they have everything they need – which is great teaching from experts in the field and an enriching learning experience from engagement with research-active scholars, but is also a student card, an IT account, library access and resources, halls of residence, counselling services, council tax exemption letters, maintenance loans and grants, CAS numbers, hardship funds, assessment, certificates, graduation, careers advice. They need to have their application assessed, their enrolment processed, their fee payments invoiced and received, their contact details kept updated, their marks put on their record, their work received, their exams sat, their attainment and attendance checked, their compliance with programme, institution, and external regulations monitored, their mitigating circumstances reviewed, their file maintained, their changes of status recorded and reported, their timetable, their learning spaces to be equipped and functional and clean, their queries to be answered, etc., etc., etc. These tasks aren’t just ‘supporting’ the ‘true’ purpose of the university – they are constitutive of the business of having students, and the business of having students is what allows the university to exist to have any purpose at all. As the article says, the success of the institution should be the common goal, but that success rests on and is exemplified by more than just delivering excellent teaching and research, and within the successful institution we all (academics, administrators, non-academic non-administrative colleagues, students) may have quite different goals orientated towards different aspects of institutional life that don’t necessarily directly relate to knowledge production (even if that is, fundamentally, why we’re all here).

  21. Katie Akerman says:

    “Non-academic”? Ouch! I prefer to define myself in terms of what I am, rather than what I am not i.e. an administrator!

  22. Jessicat says:

    I’m not sure if your comment was directed at me, but I used that term to encompass all staff working in higher education in a capacity that isn’t academic, many of whom aren’t administrators, but, if we’re talking about a perceived divide between those who perform the function of the university and those who support it, are allied or associated with administrative colleagues rather than academic ones. Perhaps I should have used our new ‘professional services’ branding but I think it still carries associations of office-based staff and perhaps doesn’t bring to mind those working in/as hospitality, catering, conferencing, security, IT support, technicians, shelving assistants, facilities, sanitation, etc.

    Sorry that didn’t come across – I wasn’t suggesting anyone should define themselves as a non-anything, and I don’t either (though I’m also not especially attached to my identity as an administrator, partly because I’m a (fledgling) academic as well, and partly because what I do for work is something I try not to consider a prominent aspect of who I am (as much as ‘I’ exist as a stable or knowable entity)… which might also play into the wider conversation of culture differences here, given that academics, by virtue, even aside from anything else, of having invested so much time and energy (and, probably, especially now, money) in the path that led them to their career, are perhaps likely to feel a stronger connection between self and job than a lot of PS staff. There are of course many for whom administration is a career, but there are also many for whom it isn’t – speaking personally, I didn’t arrive here because of a burning desire to work in HE admin or because I’d studied a related topic but because I was about to finish my first degree and it was the first job I got. Turned out I was good at it and I enjoyed working in the sector so my employment history now reflects that, but still a part of what I like about my administrative roles is that, for me anyway, the office usually stays in the office – whereas my research hovers over me constantly and I feel much more personally invested in it. As an administrator I’m personally invested in my professional identity and in being a respected employee, but that identity feels a lot further away from ‘me’ than as an academic, where the personal and professional often overlap despite my attempts to maintain a professional relationship between the two.).

  23. Jessicat says:

    Sorry, comment 23 was directed at comment 22… I used the ‘reply’ function but it doesn’t seem to indicate that now it’s posted.

  24. Ex-uni manager says:

    Well said.

  25. Matt says:

    It sounds very much as though you’re describing cultural problems within your own University. This is problematic (as with the case highlighted above with the Oxford SCR) when you extrapolate this out to include all administrators/Universities.
    The most senior leadership of the University (who are almost universally from academia) have to take some of the responsibility for perpetuating an “audit culture”, excessive direction and monitoring from the centre.
    Quite a few administrators have “had careers outside of the University” and understand where value is added. Some of them have even worked in academia!
    A significant problem could be the perception of senior academic leadership (administrative) roles as being very much beneath the concerns of a “serious researcher”. If you think the culture is rubbish and the system is broken then why not take on a leadership role and change it? It’s easier to p**s down on the system than up.

  26. Dr Admin says:

    As someone who has spent their entire career in ‘middle-admin’ roles, albeit, with some teaching & research on the side, I find Bill Cooke’s comments rather offensive. In my experience, the admin/academic divide is usually perpetuated by individuals on both sides who don’t have the confidence and/or credibility in their own identify within the HE Sector. Thankfully I work at a University where my colleagues in the Professoriate welcome my contribution to academic discussion and, when confronted with ‘admin-as-second-class-citizens’ attitudes, gleefully point out to the perpetrators that I’m a really useful expert in my field of admin and “also have a PhD” while (more often than not), they “PhDon’t”.

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