Statistics are easy to manipulate, and nothing creates a good headline like raising the spectre of a university overrun by administrators.
I have worked in the higher education sector for more than 25 years, and in that time I have seen the enormous growth of accountability, auditing and reporting. When I started my career, there was no teaching assessment, quality assurance assessment or research assessment, no freedom of information requests, no data protection, no Key Information Sets.
So the need for a body of professional services staff is perhaps not surprising. Universities are complex organisations, with a wide range of stakeholders to satisfy. They provide a range of services well beyond teaching and research, including accommodation, catering, events, hospitality, cultural performances. Income from such activity feeds into support core activity.
My experience has been that students, and academic staff, appreciate the “departmental” professional service staff with whom they interact on a daily basis, who are their first, second and even third point of contact, and who, in the main, are a constant in the organisation, holding a wealth of useful and practical knowledge. Professional staff ensure that the IT networks run smoothly, that rooms are timetabled, cleaned and appropriately stocked, that systems record data securely and accurately, and that finance is available to fund agreed activity.
Through the Association of University Administrators, I have seen some wonderful partnerships where professional staff work closely with academic colleagues to improve service, to enhance the student experience, or produce insightful research. Technical staff, accounted for in the professional services grouping, are vital to science teaching and research, and are a clear example of this kind of partnership.
Yesterday, I met an academic colleague to discuss her approach to a project which I coordinate. I offered advice as to how we could achieve this within the framework of the funding requirements. Her comment, as we agreed this would work well, was: “I do the academic thing, you do yours: a perfect partnership.” Statistics alone simply do not reflect this crossover activity.
While some may hanker after the simpler days before the advent of accountability and scrutiny, there are many more who appreciate and work collaboratively, with mutual respect, with professional services staff, recognising the level and complexity of the tasks that those staff undertake, ensuring academic time is reserved for academic pursuits.
This fact must be remembered when figures such as these are considered: the old-fashioned notion that there is some contest between academic and administrative staff is a tired, redundant idea. Modern universities in their contemporary setting have complex needs and must meet varied and changing expectations. They need appropriate staff to deal with that reality.
Universities quite properly set high standards and have high expectations of their academic staff. They apply these criteria to their professional services staff as well. Most of my colleagues are well qualified; many are also professionally accredited; and the majority of them deliver consistently excellent service. We should expect nothing less and we should respect those who deliver it.
Instead of looking at the percentages, we should assess the value and benefits that my colleagues provide, and remember that they are dedicated to ensuring an enhanced experience and delivering an excellent service. These are the indicators we should be assessing them by.
Kathryn Fowler is vice-chair of the Association of University Administrators and deputy executive director of the Aberdeen Institute of Energy at the University of Aberdeen. This blog is in response to a THE analysis.