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Names are important for the “non-academic”

Dan de Sousa of Brunel University asks why we don't have a more meaningful name for the non-academics who work at our universities.
This article is more than 2 years old

Dan de Sousa is a manager in higher education with over 15 years’ experience, a keen advocate of the AUA and a Senior Fellow of the Higher Education Academy. He is currently College Education Manager for the College of Health and Life Sciences at Brunel University London.

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.

Working together

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.

12 responses to “Names are important for the “non-academic”

  1. I know this is the site for those who hate ‘academics’, but how about a name for those who teach and research which isn’t simply ‘academic’. That’s othering, too.

    In my everyday life outside the university, people never understand what I mean if I tell them I am an ‘academic’. Most typically, I might say ‘I am a lecturer’ (although I am a professor), or that ‘I teach in a business school’ (although I research as well), or ‘I work at the University of York’.

    ‘Academics’ is a catch all largely used by University administrative staff – in all their variety – which erases ‘academics’ different areas of specialist knowledge and their different specialist skills. And particularly, it seeks to minimize their expertise in actually organizing the university.

    It is to be honest offensive to say ‘academics seem to be in leadership positions for short periods of time’; in many universities, they outlast the administrative and support staff they work with. It is a good thing that practitioners lead, and then go back to be a practitioner, with the experience of having led. Moreover, it is leadership to, well, lead a course, even a single module, and it requires skills and competences which the eyerolling ‘academic’ denigrates.

    And of course, what the homogenising term ‘academics’ erases is the huge difference in employment conditions within those who teach and research, and the massive precariat that delivers universities’ core business of teaching and research.
    Indeed, perhaps WONKHE could produce a table comparing the percentages of staff doing teaching and learning in precarious employment, and those who are in administrative, support, and managerial non-teaching and research roles.

  2. I’m in agreement. I’ve worked at a few universities where I’ve been ‘support staff’ or ‘admin staff’, but the first time I’ve liked what I’ve been called is at LSBU where all ‘non-academics’ are known as professional services. We work in Professional Service Groups, like Student Services or Estates. We have staff who are highly accredited and trained in their profession – mental health nurses and solicitors. Many of these staff have post-graduate qualifications, including doctorates, and may be more academically qualified than the ‘academic’ staff.

    The impact of recognising the ‘other’ staff in this way is that the divide between academic and non-academic decreases. We have much less of an ‘us and them’ culture at LSBU than any other HEI I’ve worked at, either in the UK or overseas.

  3. Hear hear! After 22 years in the sector I am so tired of being called a non-academic. I now retort that I am sure I would not be referred to as non-heterosexual and that generally makes the point. In my current HEI I am championing Professional and Support Staff as that is a good fit for colleagues across a range of areas but the key is that we are named in a positive way that respects the skills and competence we bring and does not identify us by what we are not.

  4. For years I have championed that the ‘Committee Secretary’, should be retitled ‘Committee Manager’, afterall that is what we do. I recently also championed for administrative staff to sit on Senate, I was told ‘absolutely not’ by a senior colleague with no real convincing explanation as to why. We finally have a Deputy VC who actually listens and for the first time the voice of ‘just administrators’ is being heard, but this is rare occurrence in HE and there are plenty of others who’d like to put us back in our ‘box’. Hierarchy is contagious, and the more emphasis on ‘seniority’ or ‘academic’ as more important, the more struggle that ensues as colleagues strive for ‘importance’ to try and extrapolate some self worth whilst others just accept their ‘place’ in the pack. Actually everyone is important, no one more than another, just different responsibilities, skills and expertise, all of which should be equally valued.

  5. Of course the very first response to this had to be from an academic hijacking the thread and making it about them.

    I’m not sure whether your hashtag should be #NotAllAcademics or #AllHigherEdLivesMatter

  6. Dearie me the first commenter is so dreadfully hard done by. Us lowly admin folk are capable enough of distinguishing between the roles an academic plays, but having been consistently referred to as “admin” or “just admin” throughout my entire career and constantly generalised by academics who have never taken the time to understand the parameters of the jobs I or my colleagues do, it’s hard to feel too sympathetic! I don’t think you really have it so hard on the job generalisation front.

  7. This is all very interesting, not least because of my current work on a project looking at the life pathways of doctoral students. The academic/non-academic dichotomy affects doctoral students, their perceptions of academia and their perceptions of life beyond academia. So-called “non-academic” careers that use the high-level skills developed in a doctorate are often considered to be of less value than an “academic” career, despite the reality that many early-career academic roles are short and precarious. There remains a strong perception, often implicit but sometimes explicit, that you will be considered a “failure” if you do not end up in an academic job after the PhD.

    That said, I have one objection to the author’s interpretation of discourse and subject positioning (and this is perhaps where I begin to sound like my old “academic” self rather than the policy wonk). It is important to remember that when someone’s identity is positioned within a discourse, this positioning is not fixed. Yes, it may mean that people change their behaviour to act out the stereotype, but it may also mean that they reject the positioning and alter their behaviour in opposition to it. In fact, there are many different discourses at play here, all having an impact on the positioning of staff identities within higher education, not least those of marketisation and regulation. Professional staff, like any individual or group, have the agency to challenge their positioning and the norms and practices that forge within institutions as a result of competing discourses. This is always a messy process and it’s wrong to assume everyone responds in similar ways – there is a great deal of micropolitics in each institution and in each department. I think it is a lot more complicated than simply advocating we stop “othering” staff, but I agree that the labelling of staff has clear influence on individuals and this is often negative and unhelpful. Finding a way to share in the common endeavour of institutional and wider educational and social goals would be a helpful start.

  8. Interactionism is obviously your game, William Cooke. Every time you place a comment on this sight you prefix it with ‘I know Wonke hates academics’.

  9. In Athena SWAN we refer to ‘Professional and Support Staff’. I’d welcome the feedback of commentators on this – there’s obviously limitations to this definition but we consider it very important not to ‘other’ such staff.
    At the risk of raising ire and returning this thread back to ‘academics’, what particularly winds me up is when only staff who both teach and research are referred to as such. This reinforces the notion that teaching staff particularly are second class citizens.

  10. I crossed the divide at 35, doubled my salary, halved my workload and got a voice in Senate, instead of a whisper at the chair’s left hand – if they were awake. I was also an elected [non-academic staff] governor and tried to educate my colleagues by referring to lecturers and researchers as non-professional and non-support staff. In many cases my staff in the registry were both more supportive of students and more professional in their standards. I have recently had a doctoral student researching academic professionals, and their view of the HEA Professional Standards Framework. Some lecturers in his sample resisted being labelled ‘professional’ – ‘they are the staff in the office. We are academics.’ Then, of course, there are Celia Whitchurch’s ‘third space professionals’. The situation is fluid and boundaries are fuzzy. I was a very academic academic registrar, doing things that I should not but which needed doing, and writing major policy papers, including the CNAA quinquennial submission, which set the academic policy framework for a decade. At senior level, that would now be less likely. Fielden wrote on the decline of the professor and the rise of the registrar. The past 20 years have seen a fightback with the decline of the registrar and the rise of the PVC, though many of them turn in to ‘just an administrator’ when faced with the challenges of academic leadership.

  11. Hi Adam. I just wanted to thank you for your comments on my article. I completely agree that positioning is not fixed and that some react differently to stimuli than others (and that I could have addressed this in the article), though I would also argue that it might be a stretch to suggest that professional services staff hold the agency to challenge their positioning in equal terms. My point about the construction of regulations was that in some cases (probably quite a few) the ‘servants of the powerful’ to which Durkhiem once refers within the organic solidarity concept are kept in check through various means of regulatory systems and thus reinforcing dominant social norms, making challenge difficult. I do agree that this is complicated and indeed, will vary between institutions and there is no one simple solution (and I’m really pleased that this has generated discussion and that there is some acknowledgement of the sociological links made here). I do hope that those reading your comment take away from it the positive: that professional services staff should at least acknowledge / appreciate that they can be the agents of change, at least as a starting point, and that the language used is important.

    Your current project work sounds fascinating!

  12. I would prefer to be non-academic person in future, so after pursuing this course,I would prefer to join any such work where doctoral degree is not required.for example film making

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