What do heads of university administration do?

A report from HUMANE examines the changing roles of the university head of administration. Who better than Paul Greatrix to take a look?

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

It doesn’t seem that long ago that AHUA was publishing its exciting report (no, really) on the role of the registrar/COO/insert alternative title in UK universities.

The heads of university management and administration network in Europe (HUMANE), the Europe-wide body which brings together the registrar/COO/insert alternative European title types (heads of administration from now on) from many more countries, has now conducted a similar exercise at larger scale and made some further important discoveries.

The report – written for HUMANE by Nadine Burquel, Cecile Chicoye, and Cecilia Heidelberger – offers some interesting insights into the role of the head of administration in European universities. I was privileged to be involved in an advisory board established by HUMANE to support the work of the research team.

Are we HUMANE or are we dancer?

As the introduction notes there has been significant change in the governance of higher education in Europe in recent years and in many cases a granting of greater autonomy to universities. Where this has happened though those countries have seen new structures and requirements intended to deliver greater accountability. Greater competition between institutions has been a feature too alongside growth in the impact of rankings placing new pressures on senior leaders to adapt to new approaches to strategic change and new forms of engagement with their governing bodies.

The survey work undertaken highlights the diversity of roles played by heads of administration (as in the UK) with all carrying slightly different portfolios. The authors identify three broad and often overlapping categories of heads of administration:

  • the traditional head of administration in charge of compliance and daily operations
  • the head of administration second only to the rector or vice chancellor
  • and the head of administration who is on equal terms to others in the senior leadership teams, yet with a role limited to administrative (non-academic) matters.

Indivisible trinity

They also observe that often and whatever their position the head of administration has three jobs in one: chief of staff, secretary to the board and head of operations. Moreover, the relationship between the rector or vice chancellor and the Head of Administration is rightly identified as being of key importance.

It is noted that tenure, when not legally fixed as in some countries, is getting generally shorter and that there is even evidence of the roles being abolished in some cases – often following tensions between administrative functions and the academic heartlands. Despite this, the report suggests that more strategic approaches to university management and the professionalisation of administrative structures are required in order to deal with increasingly complex environments.

The report also explores the background of heads of administration noting that across Europe most are recruited from within the higher education or public sectors or they grow into the position from within their own university. Among the respondents the highest salaries were reported by heads of administration in Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom.

One other element of the online questionnaire prompted respondents on their engagement in international higher education networks and their broad understanding of EU-wide policies and initiatives in education and research. These matters are particularly interesting to those of us in the UK given our departure from many of the formal EU structures and programmes. Unsurprisingly perhaps responses highlighted the value of international networking and the sharing of practices which is also at the heart of what HUMANE offers.

Beyond these areas the report covers a range of other relevant topics too including:

  • Changing governance in European HE
  • Legal frameworks and governing structures
  • The recruitment and selection of leaders
  • The diversity of titles of heads of administration
  • The role and position of the head of administration in the senior management team and governance structure
  • Developing a typology of heads of administration
  • Skills, education and academic background of heads of administration
  • Country profiles covering a number of different national university systems

It’s well worth a read. You can find further details of the research and download a copy of the report from the HUMANE website.

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