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Managing your career in HE administration

Surprisingly, ‘Managing Your Career in Higher Education Administration’ is possibly the first book in the UK covering careers in university administration. And as these careers evolve and grow in a changing sector, it’s unlikely to be the last. Paul Greatrix reviews the book and reflects on the state of the profession, how it is thought about in the sector and the pitfalls of searching for status rather than focusing on delivery and innovation.
This article is more than 9 years old

Paul Greatrix is Registrar at The University of Nottingham, author and creator of Registrarism and a Contributing Editor of Wonkhe.

Managing Your Career in Higher Education Administration
Michelle Gander, Heather Moyes and Emma Sabzalieva
Palgrave Macmillan 2014
ISBN    9781137328328

Managing Your Career in Higher Education Administration is possibly the first book in the UK covering careers in higher education administration and as these careers continue to evolve around a sector that is itself changing, it is unlikely to be the last.

There are around 200,000 of us working in HE administration in the UK; a sizeable audience for this work which offers a nice mix of information, discussion on HE themes, advice and exhortations to do better. Written in a relaxed and friendly style, the book delivers an engaging look at a range of career-related issues for higher education administrators.

Definitions and naming of these roles can be difficult; whilst many universities, mine included, now refer to administrators as being part of professional services, the authors have decided to stick with the traditional term. Still, it’s better than the alternatives that often get used such as the overly negative ‘non-academics’ or rather patronising ‘support staff’.

There’s an interesting preamble about the nature and purposes of universities and what this means for those working within them, which could have been expanded into a separate, although ultimately much less useful, volume. Scattered throughout the book there are 16 case studies in which a motley assortment of HE administrators (including me) opine about different aspects of their experiences to supplement the core material.

Beyond those sections, the opening chapters also cover working in a university and what they are like as workplaces before moving on to provide pretty sensible broad-brush advice about developing your skills and experience. Ranging from the kind of qualifications needed, to continuing professional development and how to go about seeking wider experience to drawing up a personal development plan – this is all practical and useful stuff.

The chapter dedicated to networking is a really useful section for all, whatever their stage of career, and covers the different kinds of networks in the sector and explores their importance. Again, common sense advice on developing your networks is provided together with suggestions on how to add value and to manage networks effectively.

The section on being a good manager is perhaps a bit of an awkward fit with the rest of the book in that it looks in a fairly general way at issues about managing and being managed but does contain some very interesting parts on the challenges of ‘dotted line’ management. Mentoring and coaching, topics which probably would not have been covered had this book been written five years ago, are covered in a very focused way which should be of interest and value to all, even (or perhaps especially) the most senior staff.

The concluding chapter looks at careers choices and in some detail at the career paths of the three co-authors. It all serves to demonstrate that things in administrative careers, as in university life in general, really are not at all straightforward.

There are a few pertinent observations on use of social media. I make several of them however and, on reflection, I suspect I was possibly a little over-cautious in my advice (so do feel free to ignore that bit). Rightly, graduate training schemes warrant some positive mentions. Ambitious Futures, the emerging national higher education administrator training programme, is already developing cadres of future leaders for whom this book will be a very useful guide.

Some of the challenges of the traditional HE tensions – between academics and administrators, between the centre and schools/departments, between specialists and generalists – are given an airing together with a useful exploration of gender issues. There is some discussion too about Whitchurch’s notion of the 3rd space occupied by the so-called blended professional who is situated somewhere between the academic and the administrative.

I have yet to be convinced this is anything other than a very marginal phenomenon – although there is undoubtedly more ambiguity and fluidity in many roles, this does not necessarily imply some distinct alchemy arising from an academic/administrative blend. Rather it just reflects that some roles and activities have changed over time.

There are some very helpful references and suggestions for further reading in here but the one minor gap is that there is an insufficient emphasis on the value and importance of being keenly aware of the local, institutional, national and international policy environments. To drive real career advancement I would suggest that a genuine zeal for and a real engagement with the HE policy agenda (including regular scrutiny of this site, for example) could certainly help.

The book reminds us that working in higher education is a great career. The authors, in many places, manage to capture some of the reasons for this arising from the variety of activities, the joy of working alongside outstanding academic colleagues and able and enthusiastic students and doing work with a real purpose.

So where does this lead us? The discussion about HE administration as a profession I’m afraid I find as unconvincing as I have always found it: such arguments strike me as self-serving and ultimately pointless.

Will our universities be better managed and supported and will our academics deliver better teaching and more outstanding research if HE administration is described as a profession? No. Can administrators make good career in HE and make a positive difference to the success of our universities without such a label? Absolutely. So let’s set aside this misplaced yearning for status and focus on delivery and innovation in support of outstanding higher education provision, wherever we are working in the sector.

However, overall this is a really useful book for anyone looking to build their career in higher education administration and so fills a big and noticeable gap that the community has looked to fill for some time.

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