Professional services staff play a crucial role in supporting student success at universities around the world. But career progression for such staff can be hindered by the problems they traditionally face. Confusion over how to describe them and their roles and a professional status regarded as below that of academics can diminish a sense of identity, erode enthusiasm and curtail ambition to advance their careers.
So how can these vital staff boost their career progression, and how can universities better support them?
The UK’s Association of University Administrators (AUA) has a continuing professional development framework that focuses on nine professional behaviours.
These are: managing self and personal skills, delivering excellent service, finding solutions, embracing change, using resources effectively, engaging with the wider context, developing self and others, working together, and achieving results.
Kathy Murray, director of operations at the AUA, said the framework focuses on “how an individual approaches their work – not what they are doing, but how”.
“As such, it can be used flexibly across the sector for any role across any grade,” she added.
If adopted by a university department or unit, or even a whole institution, the framework can be used to identify the CPD needs of professional services staff and to help plan and deliver tailored activities, the AUA says. “Many universities have incorporated it into various stages of the employee life cycle, from recruitment and selection, induction and probation to appraisal and progression,” said Ms Murray.
“It makes explicit the expectations within a role and can really help to focus career development.”
The 70-20-10 rule is a good way of understanding where career learning comes from, said Kenton Lewis, who formerly worked in higher education professional services and is now an education and training consultant, primarily in higher education.
Under this learning model, 70 per cent comes from direct experiential learning; 20 per cent from informal learning such as shadowing, secondments and mentorships; and 10 per cent from formal training programmes such as leadership development and workshops.
The AUA offers formal learning opportunities through events and conferences and the postgraduate certificate in higher education administration, management and leadership, which has been running for more than 15 years.
Members can take part in a range of voluntary opportunities, providing experience that would not otherwise be developed in an individual’s day-to-day role and can help with their next career move. At any one time, more than 250 members are volunteering, including mentoring postgraduate certificate students and undertaking governance roles.
Issues that have traditionally been career bugbears for professional staff include the terminology used to describe their role, as well as a perception that they are not valued by their institutions to the same degree that academics are.
“Terminology is important, as it is linked to professional identity – not only how somebody sees themselves but also how others see them,” said Ms Murray.
“There have been many iterations, from ‘non-academic’ – which is highlighting something that someone isn’t – to ‘support service’, now moving towards ‘professional services’.
“It is an important step in the professionalisation of professional services roles.”
But as well as words, she continued, the “actions that follow are equally important in demonstrating that the contribution of professional services colleagues is valued”. This means acknowledging that “the collaboration” of professional services and academics delivers “the student experience; neither could do it without the other”, she said.
The AUA “frequently hear from members that they don’t feel they are held [in] equal esteem to academics”, said Ms Murray.
Michael Monaghan, a leadership and development adviser at Liverpool John Moores University, said the “most important thing is that we need to empower professional services staff to have a sense of identity, to feel valued in their role and to care about their progression”.
“Having a group of staff who feel empowered – naturally they start to feel more valued, become more assertive in their roles,” added the two-time winner of the AUA Member of the Year Award.
Liverpool John Moores uses the AUA CPD framework to aid staff development and also runs a conference and annual awards specifically for its professional services staff.
These initiatives help staff to see that, rather than “lip service”, there is some “actual, tangible evidence” that they are valued, said Mr Monaghan.
Another area of training growth is resilience, which Dr Lewis put down to the complexity of today’s university system and the speed of change faced by institutions.
“I have noticed a real growth, a real dramatic increase in my workload, and people asking me about the areas of well-being, resilience [and] broadly what we call human skills: how you navigate through really complex systems, how you deal with the fact that there’s lots of democratised power and devolved power,” he said. “So that means the key skills need to be things like influence and communication and interpersonal relationships.”