Meeting the needs of professional services staff

Susannah Marsden asks if the pandemic experience can help to better define the critical role undertaken by the student and academic services profession

Susannah is an HE Leader at Susannah Marsden Consulting

Much has been written about the tremendous transformation undertaken by academic staff during the pandemic to redesign teaching, learning, and assessment. Less has been said about the parallel efforts of professional services staff whose work has transformed other aspects of the student experience.

Pivoting timetables, rotating regulations, swivelling student support and much more.

Behind-the-scenes, this multiple plate-spinning has enabled the sector to deliver during the pandemic. None of the education, student support, and maintenance of academic standards of which the sector is rightly proud would have been possible without this infrastructure.

In recent weeks, LinkedIn has been awash with posts celebrating colleagues who have been nominated for Vice-Chancellor’s awards that recognise their vital contributions during the past academic year.

Such accolades are very much deserved and fantastic to see. But as a sector overall, can this recognition translate into how we build the future identity and value of this profession, or does it get archived into the pandemic experience?

A question of identity

The student and academic services profession can get a hard press, particularly in the views of some in the academic community as to its value and size. Long gone are the days when the administration comprised only several memo-writing department secretaries and the academic registrar managing all the exam board marksheets.

Because of the radical changes that have transformed HE during the past 10 to 20 years, we now see a far more expansive function that provides specialist support for contemporary student life and keeps the demands of the OfS and other regulatory functions in check.

Where it is set up well, this profession clearly makes its mark on students’ lives and broader university life. And when viewed through the lens of what many of these professionals have achieved for their institutions during the pandemic, this mark is indelible.

Part of the challenge for the profession is its identity. The role that it has in the sector is a factor that makes university professional services different to those found in a corporate setting. It is not HR, marketing, IT or finance. It is unique.

But that exclusivity can often create more questions than answers. These questions are of course valid in relation to efficiency, effectiveness, and overall value for money which need to be answered clearly across all institutional operations.

But the questions are destructive when they denigrate the part that these colleagues play in students’ lives and broader university life. Yes, these colleagues provide a support or service function but they are not there simply “to serve”; they are there as equal colleagues to all other professional services. And equal to academics.

Before the pandemic, consultant Hugh Jones and I talked with many student and academic services professionals across the sector to explore this professional identity question. Within their institutions, there was a mixed experience as to how colleagues see their role. Unsurprisingly, a constructive partnership with academic staff tends to lend itself to colleagues having a more positive outlook.

Mapping out career pathways

When it comes to their own individual sense of professional identity, the overriding theme that we heard was the need for help with career direction and trajectory. Being unique, and with relatively recent growth in the profession, that sense of career pathway is not as clear as it is for more established professional services or for academics.

There is plenty of support for individual professional development available from organisations such as the Association of University Administrators (AUA) and, for some colleagues, from within their own institutions. But a sense of actual career pathway is hidden for many people. For some, it is not a question of aiming for the top job but just moving on to the next couple of steps.

The pandemic experience has been undeniably hard for many people for many reasons. The conversations that Hugh and I have had with colleagues show that for some, it has provided new opportunities in a context and pace that may not have otherwise occurred. Pivots and swivels were not commonplace pre-pandemic.

For other colleagues, the pandemic experience has drawn a halt to any sense of professional development, let alone career trajectory. Just keeping going has been a commendable achievement.

So where next for this profession and for these professionals as we move into the next phase of the pandemic and ultimately to a post-pandemic place? There is much speculation as to the future direction of the sector overall but one thing for sure is that it will continue to require talented professionals to work in partnership with academic staff.

There are some key questions that need to be addressed:

  • How does the sector build upon the talent and capacity that has been developed during the pandemic phase and how do we level up opportunities for others? This talent will play a significant role in supporting the future student experience.
  • What will a hybrid approach to working mean for this profession and the greater portability of skills across the sector? Will we continue to see the movement of staff within the usual geographical boundaries, or will this diversify?
  • How will these professionals help institutions adapt to meet the changing support needs of students? The pandemic legacy will be with us for a long time. The nature and delivery of academic and student support will likely require a bigger shift during the coming academic years than was required when Covid-19 first emerged.
  • How do we articulate career pathways for these professionals to best support them and ultimately to best support the future of the sector?

We need to reach a place where we can turn the pride gained through the Vice-Chancellors’ awards into validation of the student and academic services profession as a defined and well-understood career option. This is what will maintain and motivate people currently within the sector and generate new talent into the future.

When you work within this profession, try telling someone outside of a university what you do for a living, especially when you work at a more junior level. More often than not it generally ends up being an apology for what you don’t do (teaching) than advocating the valuable difference you make to students’ lives. Let’s pivot that answer.

2 responses to “Meeting the needs of professional services staff

  1. Throughout the pandemic I have been in awe of many of my professional service colleagues – the dedication and creativity they have shown as well as their ability to constantly ‘go the extra mile’ has been impressive. It is unfortunate that the academic/professional services barrier still exist in places and the sector has much to answer for in this reward. However, I remain confident that this will change as we move forward, albeit not at the rate it necessarily should!

  2. Our experience here at UMHAN is that job roles are not well understood or articulated outside of student services. This is not surprising with constant structural reviews and job title changes. We are building up a bank of case studies to try and tackle this, and which are published on our blog: https://www.umhan.com/articles/category/61-case-studies

    CPD, which is so vital to maintaining professional standards, can be hard to access – even if there is a budget for this, most of our members struggle to find the time to undertake even the minimum amount, and are not enabled to do so.

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