Forget ‘them and us’: why you should work in HE administration

Despite the bullying by academics and cuts always hitting professional services first, when we get it right university admin is a great place to work, says Hugh Martin

六月 18, 2021
A group of university administrative staff
Source: iStock

There’s a quick answer to why you should work in university administration: students. For the slightly longer answer, read on, though it’ll end with the same reasoning.

Higher education doesn’t need any special pleading – the pandemic has hit every sector hard. But pressure was already building on universities, from Brexit and the populist, anti-knowledge rhetoric that accompanied it to government-led assaults on autonomy, misrepresentations about freedom of speech and the reheating of the tired old chestnut that is: STEM = good; arts and humanities = bad.

What often goes under the radar is the ongoing issue of parity of esteem.

To be fair, UK higher education has made strides to get rid of the “them and us” culture surrounding academic versus administrative staff, largely pushed/pulled along by long-overdue respect for and recognition of professionally trained administrators (which started in US universities, where professionalism is prized, not sneered at).

The situation I faced when I entered UK higher education after working in the private sector has changed significantly – and for the better – in 25 years. And I’ve seen it from both sides: as a lecturer for 15 years while working at the same time through the ranks of university administration all the way to the vice-chancellor’s office.

But inequalities, and basic unfairness, remain. Read THE or similar and you’ll hear plenty from junior academics bemoaning their teaching and administrative loads. You’ll be told that vice-chancellors earn too much and that only professors should run universities. You’ll be lectured on burgeoning professional services at the expense of staff “at the coalface” (how I despise that term: as if administrators are not on the front line every single day). And, of course, you’ll have the dirty word “managerialism” waved in your face as the reason why institutions fail.

You won’t hear of the bullying of administrative staff by academics – a low-level yet persistent problem that isn’t going away. You won’t learn about pay and conditions – not for administrative staff are the generous sabbaticals, research leave, long vacations and all-expenses-paid trips to overseas conferences. You won’t discover the stark differences between the arcane and often entirely brazen process for academic promotion compared with the corporate norms applied to the administration. And you’ll be lucky if you’re told anything about how cuts and compulsory redundancies always hit professional services first; almost always the more generous voluntary redundancy schemes attract academic staff and sometimes aren’t even open to administrative colleagues.

So why, then, am I encouraging you to look at a career in university administration?

Because university administrations are some of the best places to work when we get them – and the institutions to which they are integral – right. When university leadership sees the vital relationship between professionalism and quality; when academic and administrative staff work together as colleagues; when all parts of the engine are tuned, oiled and humming with the excitement of making teaching, learning and research a truly collaborative experience.

The administrative colleagues I’ve been privileged to work for and with are consummate professionals. They are experts in what they do – many with PhDs of their own – and they thrive in the sparky and collegiate atmosphere of a properly functioning organisation. They bring creative solutions to gnarly problems; they invent, adapt, bend and rarely break under (often intense) pressure. They deal with everything from local catastrophes to global pandemics, and they do so calmly and with aplomb.

They are great to work with; they are people with purpose who (almost always!) put students first. People you should want to work with.

Whether you like it or not, universities are multimillion-pound businesses; that may not sit comfortably with your principles, but it’s the reality now, even in education systems that are still largely publicly funded.

As such, I make no apology for running an administration staffed by highly qualified professionals with years of experience.

One of education’s ironies is that we give our primary school teachers better training than we do our academic staff in HE. We believe that simply having two letters in front of and three letters after your name somehow makes you a convincing communicator, a facilitator of knowledge exchange, a partner in learning, a born educator.

Yet we wouldn’t dream of allowing someone to run our HR, finance, estates, IT, library, marketing, development, training, registry and legal departments without suitable experience and commensurate qualifications.

Among the various iniquities my colleagues in administration and I deal with, I remember one particular senior academic poking his finger into my chest and saying: “We don’t need people like you. You wouldn’t have a job without us.”

He was wrong, of course. None of us would have jobs without students.

Everything we do in the professional services of HE institutions is or should be geared towards the student experience. The best universities are places where academic and administrative staff get this and work together in partnership with their students to achieve it.

The best doesn’t have to mean massively endowed, top of the league tables, research-intensive, Russell Group/Ivy League/Group of Eight etc. It means somewhere at which you’re proud to work, where you make a difference, where your expertise in any field – academic and/or administrative – is valued; somewhere that when graduation comes around, everyone, from the cleaners to the chancellor, shares the joy and success of your students.

And that’s the kind of administration that you should want to work in. You really should.

Hugh Martin is the registrar and chief administrative officer at the British University in Dubai.



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