A special relationship that's worth fighting for

February 9, 2007

If collegiality is to survive, academic staff should strive to work with, not against, administrators, writes Linda Newman

An academic friend and I were discussing how to respond to the latest hare-brained management scheme. "We are in this together," he remarked. Later it occurred to me how rare it is to hear colleagues say such things anymore - there is an eroding sense of what it means to belong to the academic community, and administrators like me are feeling increasingly excluded.

Nevertheless, in my experience the relationship between academics and administrators is mostly positive. We each have our roles, and we recognise that good universities need both of us. In 28 years I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I have felt unfairly or disrespectfully treated by academic colleagues, who know that I see my main job as supporting their work. Yet I am worried by a new trend that is damaging that mutual respect.

Ask academics about excessive workloads and, without pause, they will cite administrative overload and burgeoning bureaucracy. Quite right, too, but what cannot be right is to play "the blame game" with fellow university professionals for government or management initiatives. By increasing the divide between the academic roles and those of other university professionals, we overlook the most likely means of mitigating that work overload and actually alienate those colleagues most likely to support us.

The academic team needs to be united as we face the challenges ahead, not blame each other for the latest diktat from management, government or funding council. While "the administration" is often blamed for all unpalatable decisions taken in universities, the reality is that academic-related staff are in fact less likely to be involved in decisions than senior academics. Indeed, administrative and library staff are targeted alongside academic colleagues when staffing cuts are required, and many believe that reducing the ranks of administrators only contributes to the extra bureaucracy that is swamping them.

Without academics, of course, there would be no university. But without effective administrators, there would be no libraries, computing services, student grants, counselling, welfare, estates or admissions. We need each other, and "the management" needs us both.

Administrative professionals share the concerns of others in universities about the growing commercialisation and marketisation of higher education.

We consider ourselves part of the academic team; our first priority is and should be collegial support. Yet, much of the working day of administrators is spent responding to initiatives or demands from this funding body or that, the research assessment exercise or even local authorities.

It is a matter of professional pride for most administrators to mitigate the effects of unwelcome developments before they reach academic colleagues. Yet because we play this intermediary role, some academics find it easy to indulge in "shoot the messenger" - or rather, "shoot the administrator" - and blame us for the oppressive bureaucracy.

Take the introduction of top-up fees as an example. I cannot imagine that any member of registry staff, admissions officer or student welfare officer welcomed the prospect of the extra work involved in explaining the fee system to prospective students or dealing with the consequential rising debt among the student population. Most would rather concentrate on widening participation initiatives or services that improve the student experience. Nevertheless, it is administrators who have borne the brunt of the extra work needed to process fee payments, administer bursary and grant mechanisms and deal with cases of financial hardship.

In contrast to a growing number of academics, students often see things differently. In my working life, I have often seen that administrators are most fondly remembered. Only recently, a Sussex University student with mobility special needs was asked to nominate a member of staff to accompany him on to the stage at graduation, and his choice was the departmental administrator who had offered practical support and a listening ear, far beyond her job description.JThere is rightly much talk of the life-changing role of academic staff, but that kind of often unrecognised, pastoral support is life-changing, too.

Most of our administrative work goes on behind the scenes. It does not grab the headlines, it is not ground-breaking research or innovative teaching and it rarely appears in the prospectus.JBut it does matter. Good universities need a good team and that means a community of academics and all those who support them. After all, unity is strength.

Linda Newman recently retired as transport manager at Sussex University.

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