Effective professionals are central to change in our sector

Andrew West rounds up findings from a project for the AUA on the future of professional services staff in higher education.

Anticipating its diamond jubilee in 2021, the Association of University Administrators (AUA) has recently completed an exciting cross-sector project.

Future HE Professionals” aimed to understand how professional services roles are developing in the context of a rapidly changing sector, and to identify the skills and attributes needed to equip professional services for the future of higher education.

The project benefited from active involvement by multiple professional organisations (including representatives of registrars/university secretaries, finance directors, HR professionals, student services teams, IT, strategy and planning), alongside feedback from a Future HE Professionals survey, which attracted more than 2000 responses from professional services staff across the sector.

Future proofing

Some significant trends have been identified that characterise the likely future of professional work in higher education.

The impact of technological development and the implications of changing demographics in the workplace was a major theme. Challenges for professional services include the extent to which teams are sufficiently skilled in harnessing the benefits from IT and data, vs the more traditional skills in “operating” IT systems.

Demographic shifts resulting in multi-generational workplaces also present new leadership challenges – taking account of increasingly varying approaches to what motivates within working life and changed expectations about career planning.

Survey respondents commented on their understanding of future development needs – in particular the importance of individuals taking personal responsibility for professional learning and career management in conjunction with a positive commitment to development on the part of employers.

And looking to the future, adaptability and agility emerge as vital professional attributes as we look ahead to increased cross-functional working – not to mention the new management behaviours, and human resources practices, which will be needed to encourage flexibility and adaptability into the future.

Pandemic implications

The timing of the project in relation to the Coronavirus emergency period enabled a focus on some of the immediate – and the longer term – implications for professional teams.

Some stakeholders pointed to an increased appreciation of the contribution of professional services as universities pivoted at speed into educational lockdown. Others looked ahead to leaner professional services in the future – reflecting reduced funding and job losses, with increased role amalgamations and collaborations (as recently reinforced in England by DfE’s “restructuring regime”).

Revised academic delivery models (eg blended learning in a socially-distanced campus) will challenge professional services teams’ creativity, organisation and management – and most stakeholders agreed that the pandemic will have an accelerating effect on change.

And as far as professional development is concerned, increased flexibility in working patterns might ironically open up more time for development at the same time as less money is available to invest.

Resources for change

Those that work in – or have connections to – professional services are likely to find much to interest and challenge in the findings from this wide-ranging project. An array of material is now freely available on the AUA website, including project research reports which are published alongside complementary resources to prompt discussion and to help individuals, organisations and institutions to engage with the material.

Those that work in professional services might ask how the findings in Future HE Professionals could inform their approach to personal and career development. Those with responsibilities for organisational development might ask how they can use the findings to better support and engage professional services teams. Those that are part of a university executive group might ask how might the insights relate to professional services strategy at the institutional level. Later in the year, AUA’s Autumn Conference (24 November 2020) will provide further opportunities to discuss the issues and implications for individuals, organisations and institutions.

AUA’s 60th anniversary puts into perspective my own 30 year career in sector administration and management. As I look at it, the success of UK higher education relies on effective professional services working in strong partnership with academic teams. Looking ahead to a higher education agenda crowded by challenge and turbulence, we can all benefit from the reflections and insights in Future HE Professionals to drive continued improvement in professional services practice and performance.

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