A recent blog by Michael Edwards, titled “I quit! Why I am leaving UK academia”, cited administrators as one of the core reasons behind his move to Germany, in a bid to escape the “hell in a handcart” that UK academia was described as becoming. I wish him well in Germany. A German colleague did ask me to point out there is a good reason why there is more traffic from Germany to the UK, but I digress.
I do recognise many of the challenges mentioned in that article and the points Edwards raises about the seemingly Byzantine processes we are often involved in. Indeed, as someone with a PhD in information management, I have been known to complete forms but attach a flowchart about how it could be made simpler in future. I’ve even been known to swear like a trooper when another uneditable PDF form pings into my inbox. Moreover, since I became associate head of our business school in January, I opened the door to an exciting new world of paperwork – from setting and agreeing budgets, through to working out what account to charge student T-shirts to.
With all that in mind, though, I still have love in my heart. I’m just going to come out and say something that many academics would find shameful and perverted – I love my administrators.
I like interacting with them, I like bouncing ideas off them and I appreciate it when they come to me with ideas about how we can get involved with changes to university policy and process. Like any relationship, we have our ups and downs (“did you not read my flowchart on how to simplify that process?”) but I think overall our administrators (and all the services roles) make me a better academic and give our university a stronger and more vibrant culture.
Last year I was shortlisted in the Most Innovative Teacher category at the Times Higher Education Awards. This was fantastic for my own career and inflated ego, but would have been impossible without the guidance written by our quality team, which assured me that my “innovation” served the needs of the student, those of the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) and those of our external examiners. Indeed, my whole teaching career would grind to a halt without our central learning technology team, which indulged me and engaged with my strange ideas.
Last week I attended graduations, events that would be impossible without the hard work of registry colleagues (who spend many hours processing thousands of marks in a very short period of time) and my own school administrators, who make sure we all get everything done on time, too. This week, I am coordinating a multimillion-pound bid on a short timescale, and it would be impossible without the rapid assistance of our legal and governance team and also our vice-chancellor’s administration team, which makes sure the right bits of paper get signed at the right time.
In September, we will be welcoming new students into the family, and that wouldn’t happen without the recruitment team and all the work that they coordinate across the year. We have several new colleagues in their first roles also joining us, and they wouldn’t receive the sort of experience that we’d expect them to without input from our Centre for Learning and Teaching, which provides a vital role, not only in pedagogical support, but also in dealing with the administrative nightmare of designing and providing our HEA-approved fellowship scheme.
The real reason I love my administrators, however, is that I truly have never felt that at Edge Hill University there is this hard divide between academics and administrators – and that doesn’t just refer to processes; it’s about culture and values.
I have never encountered a problem that was quicker to solve by sending an email than by walking the campus and banging on some doors – this was especially the case with my THE Award nomination. When explaining to other academics that I have scrapped certain lectures and seminars, they always ask how I got permission to do that, which I think is very telling. The answer is that I didn’t! I get lots of administrative advice from the Centre for Learning and Teaching, and I get lots of support, but I've never sought or had to seek permission. I never had the sense that our processes would stop something that will benefit students.
If you do have to seek permission, if your university does feel as if it’s a protracted conflict between two tribes, then I’d suggest that your problem isn’t your administrators – it’s your culture; and everyone has a part to play in changing that.
Charles Knight is associate director (learning and teaching, student experience) at Edge Hill University Business School.