Is higher education unique in the way that it labels its staff? I find it interesting that we have non-lawyers (paralegals and legal secretaries), non-police officers (PCSOs), non-doctors (paramedics, nurses, and administrative staff), and perhaps most importantly non-politicians (civil servants) who have all somehow managed to acquire for themselves decent collective titles to describe who they are as a profession.
I don’t think I’ve ever heard of someone refer to a civil servant as a non-politician – or support staff, which is my other bugbear – and yet, it appears to still be commonplace for the HE sector to call professional services staff “non-academics”. I’ve even once heard a vice chancellor, giving a talk to a room fall of such people, saying “you are not failed academics”. You can imagine how well that went down.
Shorthand for diversity
Unpacking this just a little; one might argue that the reason the term non-academic is used is because of the breadth of types of staff that operate in HE, and that it’s just easier to say over any other term. Suffice to say that this is rather lazy. This group represents a diverse range of professions from porters and estates staff, finance and human resources, data systems and IT, to quality assurance managers and operational directors. Given this diversity, you might be forgiven in thinking that it would be ok to use a generic term.
There is, though, a very real problem with this. In sociological terms, the discourse used to label an individual or a group can often shape the way that group or individual develops: instead of the term being used to simply describe them, it begins to define and influence how they are perceived, both by themselves and others, and how they operate to then fit the rhetoric. In other words, if you call a child a criminal enough times, chances are they will begin to believe it and act in said manner.
I’ve worked in a couple of universities and interacted with staff from many others and have found people use the apologetic introductory explanation of “I’m just an administrator”. In my view, this negatively influences the professional identity of some very highly-skilled staff within HE.
Context is everything
This mostly unchallenged titling issue is self-defeating. Interactionism, a school of sociology that suggests that we develop our sense of self through the meaning that we give interactions, would suggest that the (professional) identity of an individual, or one’s sense of self, is at least partly based on how we conduct ourselves on a daily basis. What it does not take into account, as (the 20th century American sociologist) Talcott Parsons would have it, is the context within which individuals (or actors) operate.
An example is a simple handshake. Most of us will have a view about the meaning of a type of a handshake; you will probably be aware of the term “limp handshake” and have a view about the person who is the said “limpee”. Parsons argues that we would have developed our understanding of that interaction not just because of the interaction itself (it’s just a handshake after all) but what we have been taught to associate with such a handshake – that the individual is not very assertive.
Semiotics at Senate
In essence, to give meaning to life around us, there are codes and structures that underpin our understanding, influencing not only our behaviour, but how we see others and ourselves. The handshake example is not that tangible, but what about other forms of influence, or social control? We operate in a very regulated environment in HE, there are rules for just about everything. However, what may be chiefly to blame for the way in which all university staff are viewed, is the creation of Senate regulations.
Such regulations are usually created by a committee whose members are mostly (if not often completely) academics. The regulations then place academics, rightly or wrongly, at the heart of all decision making: from approving students to suspend their studies to approving new programmes.
But, where do professional services fit in to decision making? They mostly move processes on and service committees. Committees are a big thing in HE, very big in fact, and most of the time, the chair of a committee is an academic. What appears to have happened is that the term secretary has become synonymous with support, and essentially, always plays second-fiddle to an academic because of this overarching governance structure. It is perhaps no surprise then, that as a collective we are deemed to be the “others” in the group: the support, the non-academics.
Enter Sir Humphrey
Perhaps it would be useful here to return to the civil servant issue. Politicians are generally only around for a short spell. They have a lot of decision-making powers and run the show. But the real strength in their camp is the civil servants. They often have long careers in their profession, understand different areas, have worked with a wide range of staff, and have experienced all sorts of change. They are the also ones who will usually inform a politician that their “novel” idea has been tried before and didn’t work then either.
Similarly, academics in leadership positions tend to only be around for a relatively short period of time, supported by a plethora of knowledgeable, long-serving professional services staff, who have probably seen many iterations of an institution’s structure. How many of you reading this have been at a place long enough to have seen a restructure, only for there to be a new vice chancellor who triggers another restructure, taking you back to something you previously had or similar? It’s a bit like a tango where the lead dancer is replaced every few minutes taking the partner in a different direction, not thinking they have been been there before and know their stuff inside out.
Civil servants have a title that describes them in such a way as to help bolster a solid sense of identity that is commonly understood. Importantly, they are their own profession. It is a positive reinforcement of what they do: their skills and experience. That is not to take away from the role of the politicians of course, but one would not be successful without the other. Surely then, HE should follow suit. Perhaps, but with one major caveat: the eagle-eyed might argue that the term servant is negative. I’d ask for you to consider whether or not the term civil servant has negative connotations and now consider if this would be the same if transferred to academic servant.
Nevertheless, let’s stop thinking of professional services staff as the others and start thinking of them (us) as an equal and valuable part of this dance. We do not just support the HE endeavour, we move it forward. Allow us to operate in a manner that isn’t just support and the partner in the dance might pleasantly surprise you.