Career strategies

Many of the UK's 'accidental' administrators think that their work is not valued and that their US counterparts enjoy higher status. John Morgan considers what gives the professional edge

March 25, 2010

Rightly or wrongly, there are academics in the UK who imagine that America is the big league, the place to be, where they and their work will be taken seriously. And for much the same reason, many of their colleagues in university administration look enviously across the Atlantic.

US administrators, in the eyes of some of their UK counterparts, are better qualified, more powerful, closer in status to academics and more respected. They are almost always armed with postgraduate degrees. They specialise in areas such as admissions and student financial aid, where they - rather than academics - make key decisions affecting institutions' futures. They have a 100-year-old professional association that is based in the nation's capital and employs a government relations officer to lobby on crucial legislation.

The contrast with the situation of university professional staff in the UK appears stark. Our tradition of generalised administration can seem amateurish. Requirements that staff hold a postgraduate qualification of any sort seem a long way off given that administration is barely a graduate-entry career. Some think it is exactly that lack of professional status that must be addressed to attract more high-quality candidates - and under the aegis of the Association of University Administrators (AUA) that process is already under way. And the aim, after all, is to ensure that the people responsible for the day-to-day running of our higher education institutions are as well qualified and trained as possible.

But do US administrators feel their experiences match the admiring perceptions of those in the UK? Does the gap in qualifications reflect a true lack of professionalism in the UK? And what does the US/UK contrast tell us about the well-rehearsed debate on "managers taking over"?

Many scholars are quick to argue that the key point about "non-academic staff" in both countries is simple - there are too many of them, and they eat up resources that could be better used for teaching and research.

Job advertisements offer an insight into the professional status of university administrators in America. Concordia College in Minnesota is seeking a "dynamic, innovative, visionary Dean of Students". A "master's degree in an academic discipline or higher education administration ... is required; a doctorate in an appropriate discipline is preferred". California State University Stanislaus wants its associate vice-president for enrolment management to have a master's minimum, doctorate preferred. The University of Pittsburgh at Bradford tells applicants for the post of residence life coordinator that they must hold "a master's degree in higher education/student affairs".

Matthew Andrews, academic registrar at Oxford Brookes University, finds such adverts revealing. "A large number require specific postgraduate qualifications - induction in enrolment management is an example. At the moment in the UK, we don't really have that level of specificity in our awards."

These qualifications mean enhanced status for administrators, says Andrews, who has made professional visits to a number of US institutions. "They weren't people who have just picked up these jobs. They have been specially trained to do it. They can say, 'I'm a professional who has the right knowledge.' That gave the US administrators I talked to a certain self-belief, which was part of it, but (it also provided) a public level of appreciation for the role they were taking."

Some question the motives behind the professionalisation agenda, seeing it as an attempt by administrators to climb the pecking order and stop academics sneering at them. Why, such critics ask, should the rest of us care about it?

"You can turn it around and say, 'Why should we care about having well-run universities?'" Andrews responds. "That is what administrators are doing. A lot of the business of the running of universities is done by administrative staff. It is self-evident that we need the staff running our universities to be well trained in doing that and to keep their skills up - it is a complex environment."

Part of the problem, he says, is that the profession has a small graduate intake. "Nobody thinks when they are in sixth form, 'I'll go to university and I really want to be a university administrator.' People just don't know it exists."

It is "an invisible profession", Andrews laments. "We have got to give it standing, give it weight and enable universities to recruit people into the sector, and promote and develop them through their careers."

Celia Whitchurch analysed differences between US, UK and Australian administrators in a 2008 report for the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, Professional Managers in UK Higher Education: Preparing for Complex Futures.

In her survey, she writes, the "most striking difference between respondent profiles in Australia and the US and those in the UK was that a much higher proportion had higher degrees. In the US, where professional staff would be expected to have completed a dedicated master's programme in, for instance, higher education administration or student affairs, 93 per cent of respondents had master's degrees and 60 per cent had doctorates ... The comparable percentages for the UK were per cent and 8 per cent.

"In the US particularly, this picture represents an established knowledge base for professional staff, which may be seen as an academic, or applied professional, discipline in its own right."

The report goes on to say that "professional staff in the US appear to have a greater equivalence vis-a-vis their academic counterparts" and "a stronger profile and a clearer sense of professional identity".

Whitchurch, a former administrator who is now a lecturer in higher education at the Institute of Education, University of London, says: "In the US, it is a much more established profession. I would say it is much more mature. They have a long-standing tradition of postgraduate degrees in areas such as student affairs and higher education administration and leadership ... They are privileged in having that. We haven't had that up to now, although things are changing."

Despite the transatlantic qualifications gulf, she cautions against assuming that there is a gap in quality between the US and UK, noting that there is "a difference between being a 'professional' and being 'professionalised'?".

She attributes some of the variance to history and culture, citing the distinctive roots of the UK's pre-1992 university administration.

"The tradition of generalist administration in the UK comes very much from a civil service tradition. Albert Sloman, the first vice-chancellor of the University of Essex, coined the phrase 'academic civil service' in his 1964 Reith Lecture. There was a sense that you moved around and gained experience of different areas, such as exams or admissions ... Many of the senior people in universities in the 1960s tended to be people who had returned from the former British colonies. They tended to organise things in their own image. I think that history in the UK is quite important if you're making a comparison with the States, because they are coming from a different place."

Another difference Whitchurch picks out is the greater tendency for US administrators to be engaged in institutional research on factors such as admissions trends. "That is almost verging towards an academic role," she says.

Her study for the Leadership Foundation terms those involved in such work "blended professionals" - people who draw their identities from both the academic and professional domains. Although the phenomenon is more advanced in the US, it is becoming more common in the UK.

Underlining the importance of the need to professionalise administration and management, Whitchurch says higher education institutions are big businesses dealing with large amounts of money and many people. "Having knowledge and qualifications gives them (professional staff) more credibility. And not just that, they tend to be able to understand what's going on in the system as a whole and not focus solely on what's going on in their own process, department or institution."

Jerry Sullivan is well placed to offer insight into how US administrators view their professional status. He has been executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers (AACRAO), a full-time post, since 1998. His last job at an institution was as director of student financial aid at the University of Colorado at Boulder.

Although he points out that the nature of administration "varies greatly" across the different types of institutions in America - state-funded, private not-for-profit and private for-profit - he sees a common trend for administrators at better-funded universities to have PhD or master's level qualifications in higher education management.

But professional qualifications for administrators do not stop there.

"In addition to that, especially at master's level, there are at least 100 programmes in the US where someone who is looking at a middle management job in higher education - maybe they want to be a residential halls director - would go and get a master's degree in student services in higher education."

Of course, the accumulation of professional qualifications is not the only route into university management: the academic-turned-administrator remains a fixture. Converts from the faculty make up "most of the higher level administrators in the US", Sullivan says.

So does the professionalised nature of their work give American university administrators higher status?

"I'm not sure that it does," says Sullivan. "The mid-level to upper mid-level administrative manager in higher education who comes from the faculty and has a PhD in some teachable discipline tends to have the most status. And it has very little to do with their ability to do administration. From a status point of view, there is no doubt about it - that is the place to be."

His personal experience belies the myth of US campuses being an administrator's nirvana.

"I worked on campuses for 25 years as an administrator. After a while, I got sick of being a second-class citizen. You more or less had to buy into this myth that the place was totally run by the faculty ... I got sick of it and of listening to people talk about it. You would go to meetings with other administrators and the first half hour would be spent saying, 'They don't show us any respect.'

"That is a problem here in the US. It's not universal - there certainly are universities where that isn't a day-to-day problem. But it is typical. It is the norm even in cases where the faculty don't have real control over the managerial decisions on the university. The myth is still in existence."

Paul Wiley is university registrar at the University of the South at Sewanee, a liberal arts college in Tennessee. He recently completed a doctorate in education - on leadership policy in higher education organisations - at Vanderbilt University. Although he signed on for the course out of "personal interest", others had different motives.

"Of the people who were on the programme with me, many were quite a lot younger and they were very much interested in the degree as a step to more high-level administrative positions, especially in the area of student services. They saw it as absolutely essential that they do that."

A key contrast between the US and the UK becomes apparent when Wiley talks about students entering master's programmes "with the specific intention to go into higher education administration".

University administration is made visible to undergraduates as a career, he believes, by organised methods to offer them part-time work. Some federal financial aid to students is attached to work/study programmes within colleges, while most institutions also have their own systems for allocating laboratory or clerical administration work.

"It is a way that they (students) become engaged in higher education administration," Wiley says.

Jeff von Munkwitz-Smith, university registrar at the University of Connecticut, took that route himself. He started working in administration while he debated whether to go to graduate school or to law school.

He is neither an academic convert to administration nor a holder of a professional postgraduate qualification. He does, nevertheless, have a doctorate - in Sanskrit.

He says: "I don't know anyone in the registrar profession who started out thinking, 'Gee, I want to be a registrar'. I took a job while I was trying to decide what I was going to do after graduating with a bachelor's degree. I did find that I enjoyed the work. I liked working with students, and I liked working with faculty."

But von Munkwitz-Smith thinks that nowadays, some form of postgraduate qualification is the best route. "I've told my younger staff who have ambitions to advance in the profession that they really do need to get an advanced degree. Not necessarily a PhD, but at least a master's or a law degree."

Does he feel that administrators are esteemed as equals by academics? "I have a lot of friends in the faculty and I feel genuinely respected and valued by them, partly because I've been attentive to the needs of the faculty. If you respect the faculty as an administrator, then you're probably going to get respect in return."

As a member of the AACRAO board, von Munkwitz-Smith can shed some interesting light on the political status enjoyed by the organisation, which employs a government relations officer to lobby federal officials.

"You do try to provide information to people in the federal government on things that association members are interested in," he says, "such as policy on transfers of credits between institutions, on student records privacy."

The AACRAO made progress in convincing the government to alter legislation that would have forced colleges to accept the course credits of students transferring from any institution that is nationally accredited.

"Our position was that that's an institutional decision rather than something the federal government should mandate, and we were successful in lobbying people on that viewpoint," von Munkwitz-Smith says.

The days when UK administrators and managers have a lobbying presence in Westminster are probably some way off. But on other fronts, there is progress towards the type of professionalisation seen in the US.

The Institute of Education has been running an MBA in higher education management since 2002. Bath and Loughborough are among the universities known for postgraduate qualifications in higher education administration. The AUA runs a postgraduate certificate in professional practice in conjunction with The Open University. And it covers the key issues facing administrators and managers in its journal, Perspectives: Policy and Practice in Higher Education.

Sir Peter Scott, vice-chancellor of Kingston University and president of the AUA, says that in practical terms, UK administrators are "in no way inferior" to their US counterparts. He now sees a shift away from the type of career progression "in which you work your way up in that slightly old-fashioned, general way. Quite a lot of people are highly qualified in professional terms for their roles."

He adds: "I think the average administrator may receive more training and more development opportunities than the average academic nowadays."

Scott also sees more institutions recognising the value of developing and keeping administrators by offering "fast-track training systems" for their high-flying professional staff.

Nevertheless, he says, the traditional accidental route into administration is often positive because it can bring in "more diverse people, people at different stages of their careers, from different walks of life".

Maureen Skinner, chair of the AUA, singles out qualifications as the crux of differences between the US and UK.

"I think we will move closer to the American model of professional management and administration. It is a process that we are already engaged with, and we will continue to (move) along that route," she says.

Skinner, who is registrar in the Faculty of the Arts at Thames Valley University, believes that changes will be accelerated as government funding shrinks and universities pay more attention to generating alternative income.

Fundraising from private sources, for example, requires specialist knowledge, she says. "You are going to employ people who know exactly how to go about it and sometimes, as a prerequisite, they will need to have an MBA. That is exactly what a number of US institutions do."

She applies similar thinking to universities' general links with business. In everything from constructing short courses to developing consultancy services, institutions will need people to connect academics with commercial enterprises, people who can "speak the language of both".

"My contention is that staff in professional services are well placed to respond to that challenge," Skinner says.

In contributing to the Higher Education Funding Council for England's recent higher education workforce framework, the AUA has stressed the need to give specific attention to university administrators and managers.

A key point is "how as a sector we are going to raise the profile of higher education professional services as a career of choice", Skinner says. "Very few universities have graduate training schemes."

But despite many entering their jobs "by accident rather than design", professional staff in the UK have a high level of commitment, Skinner argues.

"They are not motivated by money; otherwise they would be doing something else. They are motivated by doing something that is important and has value in society. They would walk miles to help a student ... that is what gives them job satisfaction."

Already, Whitchurch sees the professional structure within administration and management changing. People want to have a greater "understanding of the system" they work in.

"In 20 years, more and more senior people in the UK on professional contracts will have doctorates," she says. "We're noticing that people will finish the MBA, come to the Institute of Education and enrol on doctorates to do with university management. People who really want to get on see that as a way of giving themselves parity (with academics)."

But is it meaningless to compare UK administration with the US and its vast, diverse higher education system?

Andrew West, director of student services at the University of Sheffield, says: "It is more interesting to think about continuing professional development wherever you find it, rather than a simplistic comparison ... You need to look at the details or syllabuses of some of those (US) programmes in order to unknit from them the sort of things that could be picked up under a broad continuing professional development umbrella here, but wouldn't necessarily lead to an academic qualification."

A large-scale, US-type system of professional degrees is unlikely to develop in the UK, West argues. "In a sense, we are where we are. Unless we have a significant increase in the size of the sector - which is very unlikely - it is difficult to see how we could create the critical mass of support." The UK needs a "more varied approach", he adds.

And what of managers and administrators "taking over"? Is the same argument played out in the US? A national newspaper recently reported that the number of managers at UK universities has risen more than three times as fast as the number of academics since 2003, according to research based on figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency. The National Union of Students says the analysis showed that money invested in the sector "had not been well spent".

Such spats and debates regularly erupt in the US, says Sullivan, who thinks of them as part of a "budget politics dance".

"Faculty leadership make these remarks when there are moves to cut budgets. On a day-to-day basis, your average faculty member and administrator get along just fine. It is the case that the number of administrators has grown significantly in the US, but for the most part this is because of (the need to comply with) complex legislation and court rulings. This gets forgotten, though, when people think their job or project is threatened."

Whitchurch advises that the statistics be taken with a pinch of salt. Hesa definitions of different categories of staff are complex. "When statements are made about increasing numbers of 'managers' or even 'administrators', it is not clear what or who is being counted," she says.

The standard employment categories used do not map easily on to the wide range of professional groupings in universities, she says.

Members of the AUA board of trustees see themselves and their work in more nuanced and positive terms.

Christopher Hallas, academic registrar at University College London, argues that the growth in professional staff "relieves academics of management and administrative burdens, and frees them up to focus on their research and teaching activities".

Bruce Nelson, academic registrar and deputy secretary at the College of Science and Engineering, University of Edinburgh, points out that universities are larger and more complex organisations than they were 20 years ago. They must cope with new legislation, along with new demands such as widening participation, commercialisation and internationalisation, he argues.

Professional staff are likely to see the familiar arguments about their over-recruitment become louder as public funding falls, if Sullivan's observations apply here. But moves to bring them up to speed with the professionalised system in the US may create a clearer sense of their role - and a better defence against the attacks.

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