Leader: Accidental, but also elemental

Administrators may lack a career structure, but they are essential to universities and do not deserve to be disparaged

March 25, 2010

When things are in a mess, everyone looks for someone to blame. National newspapers are no exception. They had to find new scapegoats after they'd run out of expenses-fiddling ministers and economy-busting bankers to eviscerate. Last week they turned their attentions to European Union students, with Lithuanians singled out.

Other overseas students are, of course, welcome in our green and sometimes unpleasant land because they give us lots of money and their numbers don't affect home student places. That is, if they haven't been scared off by tales of meltdown, or what some have termed the Russell Group head's "Ratner" moment.

No, it's the EU ones, the "Easystudents" (so named not because of a love of cheap thrills but a love of no-frills airlines), who are today's baddies. The papers have woken up to the fact that the EU affords students as well as workers mobility. They pay the same fees as home students and their numbers count towards the cap, a situation encapsulated in the shrill demand of a Daily Mail headline: "Why are British taxpayers funding EU students at our universities when our own children are being turned away?" Over to you, Lord Mandelson.

Even in the academy, people need baddies to blame. Here in the UK, it's administrators who often come in for opprobrium, because ever more money is spent on recruiting more and more of them while lecturers' jobs and money for teaching and research are being cut. Or so the story goes.

And it's not only in the UK that this occurs. Jerry Sullivan, executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, says the same arguments occur in the US, and they get sharper when finances come under pressure and academics look at what can be jettisoned to spare their own projects from the chop. In our lead feature this week, he describes it as part of a "budget politics dance". A (bottom) line dance might be more apt.

These arguments do not have to be inevitable. Both academics and administrators are essential to the running of a university. If numbers of administrative staff have grown in recent years, it is because of the bureaucratic burden imposed by legislation and legal rulings. Cutting disproportionate numbers of admin staff won't help when the administrative load on academics is already huge.

For the future, there is an important role for professional staff to play in bringing in much-needed alternative sources of income. Maureen Skinner, chair of the Association of University Administrators, insists that they could well be key because they are the ones who can talk to business (someone has to) and they possess specialist knowledge in fields such as alumni relations.

Although administration is prominent in these debates, it remains "an invisible profession". Children don't tell their parents: "I want to be a university administrator when I grow up"; the career path is not a straightforward one, and the accidental administrator is not unusual.

It is a function that is undervalued, overlooked and sometimes unjustly denigrated. When higher education itself suffers far too often from being treated as a drain on resources instead of being lauded for its valuable contributions, it is to its shame that it replicates that treatment within its own walls.

ann.mroz@tsleducation.com.

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