Leader: Different players, same side

Despite the tension between administrators and academics, they share many aims. Both parties ought to recognise this

April 9, 2009

Why would administrators choose to work in a university? The academics they work alongside often dismiss them as a lower form of life, parasites - the non-academics who drain resources. Administrators talk of the existence of apartheid, an iron curtain, of being thrown together in an arranged and unhappy marriage in which neither party understands the other.

But both have entered into this relationship for the right reason: because they feel that what they do is worthwhile and of value to society. Today's universities are unwieldy and complex beasts. The core mission of teaching and research remains the same, but other things tickle the edges: knowledge transfer, fundraising and community engagement. Then there is the ever-growing need for accountability and all that dreaded bureaucracy, the bulk of which is conducted by the administrative staff. And it is this that explains much of the coolness towards them.

Giles Brown, administration/school manager of the School of Geographical Sciences at the University of Bristol, knows all about an icy atmosphere. He was an academic studying glaciology before he chose to move into administration because he felt his impact on the sector would be greater, "both in terms of teaching and learning, and in research".

Such movement between the two camps is now breaking down divisions. Celia Whitchurch went the other way, from administrator to academic, and it is her report, Professional Managers in UK Higher Education: Preparing for Complex Futures, that identifies the hope for the future, the "blended professional" who can span both worlds and is comfortable working in an "ambiguous space" between the two.

But administration itself can also be divided. For many academics, that which takes place locally is valued because they see it as still serving the academic enterprise and as being collegial. Central administration is more problematic. It is seen as a corporate bureaucracy where, said one respondent to our reader survey, "Administrators are used by senior managers to police policy compliance and enforce change initiatives. So, for example, data on students' characteristics and performance/progression are as likely to be used for bully and blame tactics as to feed into evaluation and development within courses and departments."

It's not surprising, then, that academics feel mistrustful and under siege, especially when they see the swelling ranks of administrative staff (in the US and Australia they now outnumber the academics) and when they sense corporate encroachment in the calls for them to be more business facing and produce work-ready graduates. Plus, many administrators now come from the world of commerce, bringing with them management-speak - "strategic plans, quality progress reviews, going forward" - private-sector structure and processes and top-down decision-making into a world where consensus is valued above all else.

So we end up with academics who feel that their scholarship is under threat in one corner and in the other the administrators who feel that this collegiate world, for all its vaunted egalitarianism, often excludes them.

For better or for worse, however, they are in it together, and they must learn how to rub along. As in many marriages, how much better would it be if both parties understood that they are both on the same side?

ann.mroz@tsleducation.com.

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