A starring role beckons

As the student experience becomes more crucial to universities' survival, administrators see a chance to step out of their supporting parts. John Morgan examines how their positions may expand and evolve

April 14, 2011

Any academics who think their university and all its elements revolve around them may have to prepare for a cosmic shift.

With the reforms it is introducing in England, the UK government is intent on giving students a much more prominent role in shaping the sector, believing that by unleashing a market revolution, universities will change for the better as student customers make their choices on the grounds of academic excellence and the wider campus experience.

Of course, as non-academic elements of campus life become more crucial to attracting students, those whose job it is to deliver them will grow in influence.

"Who will be driving these changes? Will it be academic members of staff? No, I don't think it will be," says Christopher Hallas, chair of the Association of University Administrators (AUA). "Yes, they have to continue to deliver on academic quality and academic programmes. But in terms of students, the concept of student experience as simply being an academic experience - I don't think that is going to hold up and stand the test of time."

A shift in the old campus order is looming, and if it means a loss for academics, it means something very different, and possibly more positive, for administrators.

A future marked by more competition between universities to attract students will demand more attention to the comprehensive experience of students beyond the classroom - everything from disability support to around-the-clock access to libraries - as they demand better services in return for tuition fees of up to £9,000 a year. And it will also require more research into admissions patterns and tuition fee and bursary levels as universities seek to establish their market niche.

Hallas believes the new environment forces universities and administrators to rethink how they provide services to students. Administrators will need to emulate customer-centred models from the commercial sector, he says.

But administrators keen to make the most of the new opportunities may have to tread carefully to prevent friction with academics.

Celia Whitchurch, a former administrator who is now a lecturer in higher education at the Institute of Education, University of London, agrees that there is likely to be "a greater imperative" to have professional services jobs. This could lead to tensions unless such roles are seen as contributing to academic agendas rather than being "at the expense of academic posts", she notes.

With the landscape evolving so rapidly, the AUA - higher education administration's professional body - has much to look forward to. Delegates at its annual conference, which takes place on 18-20 April at the University of Nottingham, will have even more cause to celebrate this year, which marks the organisation's jubilee, given the potentially transformative changes ahead.

In November last year, Aaron Porter, the president of the National Union of Students, warned that students would launch a "consumer revolution" against a sector that was unprepared for the consequences of marketisation and higher tuition fees.

The message seems to have hit home with administrators, who are keen to emphasise the new challenges they face as students adopt a consumer mentality.

Jon Baldwin, registrar at the University of Warwick, says: "We've got a major contribution to make to the whole student experience. I think that in the era of enhanced graduate contributions, expectations will rise. The way students are looked after and supported in the university - not just the classroom - will be absolutely crucial from the moment they make an enquiry to the moment they graduate. We have got to be ready to step up."

This may involve a re-evaluation of the administrator's place in the university hierarchy.

Baldwin, a member of the executive at the Association of Heads of University Administration, says: "Our role is always a supporting one. But perhaps the services we help deliver will be more in the spotlight. What we do might become more visible, more relevant and therefore, yes, that does make it more important. Perhaps not in the eyes of the students themselves, but in the eyes of those who measure us."

Matthew Andrews, academic registrar at Oxford Brookes University, says that thinking in terms of a balance of power between academics and administrators is the wrong way to approach the changes ahead, even though he believes that higher tuition fees will fuel an existing trend towards higher expectations from students.

"How digitally committed is a campus? Many students will be at the cutting edge for mobile computing. To what extent are a university and its services available 24/7?

"Students will expect an uplift in all of these areas. When institutions are considering how to spend their resources, they will be looking to all parts of the institution to play their part."

Hallas, currently academic registrar at University College London but shortly to become director of student affairs at the University of Greenwich, says the rise in the quality of student services will have to apply to everything from "disability and dyslexia services, counselling services (to) employability". He points to employability - distinct from the more traditional careers service by being woven into the fabric of a degree course - as an example of a service more tailored to the needs of students with greater expectations.

Another administration trend Hallas identifies is that of "super convergence". This involves consolidating a range of student services, such as counselling, bursary help and the like, on a single physical site or within a strategic-management framework, or both.

"In terms of leadership, management and administration, the shift that is going to be required is from a traditional bureaucratic model to a modern, commercial customer-service model. It is about making the user of the services your point of departure, rather than delivering a service around your needs."

With all these changes on the horizon, it is a fitting time for the AUA to celebrate its jubilee. It is consulting with a range of bodies, in higher education and beyond, on whether it should become "much bigger and adopt a different sort of persona", Hallas says.

"The skills, knowledge and mindset of leaders, managers and administrators in higher education need to change, and the AUA can support that change and deliver on professional development," he says.

All of this points to increased professionalism for administrators, going hand in hand with the more visible roles brought by changes in government policy. Could that combination make higher education administration, often regarded as an "invisible" occupation that people join "by accident", better recognised as a career option?

Hallas is optimistic, suggesting that higher education administration could become a career of choice for those shut out of the Civil Service by public spending cuts and could also gain a more prominent profile at long last.

"I foresee university management and administration developing as a profession of choice, so that people actually choose to enter that profession rather than falling into it," he says.

Specialist training for administrators has been developing for several years.

The Institute of Education's MBA in higher education management has been running since 2002, while the University of Bath and Loughborough University are among the other institutions known for postgraduate qualifications in higher education administration. In addition, the AUA runs a postgraduate certificate in professional practice in conjunction with The Open University.

On the question of whether administrators will gain status at the expense of academics under the new regime, it may be misleading to suggest that there is an impermeable barrier between the two.

Some say that the work of administrators is growing closer to that of academics. Increasingly, many administrators perform roles that support teaching - such as leading classes to improve written English - or carry out what is known in the US as "institutional research" on a university's own performance in certain key areas.

Whitchurch has studied the growth of these "blended" roles. A book setting out her research and findings, Reconstructing Identities in Higher Education: The Rise of "Third Space" Professionals, will be published later this year.

She anticipates an acceleration of the trend whereby "increasing numbers of professional staff have academic qualifications and teaching and research experience". She says they often do things that academics used to do, such as developing new modes of learning and delivering student support and pastoral care, which releases academics to focus on mainstream teaching and research.

On institutional research, Whitchurch suggests that as competition intensifies, universities will want to study their own recruitment trends, take-up of bursaries and student outcomes. "It will become increasingly important as institutions decide what their 'client base' is, and what their market is."

She also believes that "support for the student experience, from e-learning to welfare issues, is likely to achieve greater prominence and further open the door for people who are not on academic contracts but who work in areas such as programme design, and delivery and learning partnerships - especially as resource constraints mean that academic staff are obliged to account more closely for their time in relation to teaching and research and therefore have less time for pastoral and support activities. They may indeed be actively discouraged from undertaking them."

Whitchurch agrees with Hallas that "the employability agenda is likely to become more pressing as students become more aware of what they might earn as a result of paying for a degree. Institutions are likely to respond by expanding their employability teams, who work with academic staff and employers to integrate employability into the curriculum, and develop student skills such as creating CVs and performing well at interviews."

But she cautions that growth in professional services may create anxiety among academics.

That is certainly a concern for Roger Brown, professor of higher education policy at Liverpool Hope University, who warns that when escalating regulation and market competition serve to increase the number of administrators, there will be negative consequences.

This trend, which he says is already under way, "gets you further and further from the old notion that basically the interactions that mattered were the interactions between the teacher and student.

"The academics will still be in charge of the curriculum - I don't see that changing. But we will need more people as administrators, and there may be some small shift of power in their favour."

Regulation "always requires administrators", Brown says. And there will be plenty of that under the new system. The government may redefine and expand the role of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, and the Office for Fair Access will take on an enhanced role, granting institutions permission to charge undergraduate tuition fees above £6,000 a year subject to more demanding agreements on admitting disadvantaged students.

And with a more marketised approach also increasing the emphasis on administration, Brown forecasts a movement towards the US model. "The big Ivy League institutions have become businesses that happen to be in education. They have whole rafts of administrators who could be working in a corporation."

But David Willetts, the universities and science minister, is apparently intent on restraining the growth of administration. In a speech to the Universities UK conference last year, he lamented that: "In 2009, the number of senior university managers rose by 6 per cent to 14,250, while the number of university professors fell by 4 per cent to 15,530."

He added that "we owe it to the taxpayer and the student to hold down these costs - we are now in a different and much more austere world...We will do away with unnecessary burdens upon you that require the recruitment of more administrators."

Brown says that Willetts' argument is hypocritical. "The more you expect people to compete, the more they will have to divert resources into becoming competitive. That involves more people in marketing, branding, alumni relations, fundraising and dealing with a complicated bureaucratic regime."

Could there be more friction between academics and increasingly empowered administrators? Hallas says: "In very traditional universities where the academic faculty is all-powerful, yes, of course. But in more modern, forward-looking universities, probably not."

Baldwin believes there will be growth in some areas of administration. But he says this will not be the "exponential growth" seen in the US because UK academics are not accustomed to ceding authority to administrators in key areas such as admissions, unlike their counterparts across the Atlantic.

"There won't be the same transference of responsibility from academic to administration," Baldwin predicts.

Many academics will hope he is right; others working in higher education may hope he is wrong. Either way, the administrators' time may have arrived.

No closing for lunch: Not more, perhaps, but more professional

The new funding climate could offer some exciting prospects for administrators, but it could also mean fewer of them about - and there will be no more closing for lunch in student services.

Nick Foskett, vice-chancellor of Keele University, says: "In seeking to reduce costs and be more efficient, universities are looking not just at academic savings but at ways they can run administration services more efficiently."

Foskett, who has been joint editor of the journal International Studies in Educational Administration, adds that funding cuts are already prompting Keele to consider sharing some services with higher and further education institutions, as well as local authorities.

He points to IT, payroll and human resources as examples of areas where services could be shared.

"Why should every university in the country have its own payroll department? It doesn't make any sense."

Foskett shares the belief that higher tuition fees will bring culture change to universities and require a "student focus" from administrators.

"Students paying £9,000 a year are going to expect high-quality, professional interactions with universities. When they go through admissions, or pay their fees, students will want to make sure they get a high-quality experience.

"I think the days are gone when student services closed for lunch - not that that was ever a problem at Keele."

All of which means universities "should be looking to ensure that the quality of our administrative staff is high. There might be fewer of them, but they will be good people.

"There will be a demand for better qualified, more professional people and less demand for - if you like - ordinary clerical staff and low-grade administrators. We will need people with genuine professional skills in these administrative areas."

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