Collegiate spirit drives us to help advance the academic enterprise

Administrative staff do not deserve demonisation because they too are committed to the university's unique mission, argues David Allen

October 22, 2009

In 1976 I attended an introductory course for university administrators in Leeds where Sir Edward Boyle, who was vice-chancellor then, solemnly advised us that we should look at ourselves in the mirror every morning and recite: "I know I'm an evil, but am I a necessary evil?"

Although Sir Edward had himself been an education minister, his remark reflected a widespread attitude at the time that administration, management and the practitioners of their dark arts were somehow below the salt, to be tolerated in the academy only if they remained in their subordinate, deferential place.

Years later, I recall a colleague from another university saying: "I don't know about you, but academics always seem to be dripping with contempt when they speak to me." I am happy to say that has not been my experience over the years. In general, my interactions with academics have been entirely positive. I do, though, remember confessing to a wonderfully humane and brilliant professor of medicine that what I did seemed rather pointless compared with what he did.

Although he was about to rush off to an outpatients clinic, he took the trouble to sit me down and convince me that, without efficient and effective governance and management, he couldn't do his job. It turned out that I was a necessary good after all. Even during many hours spent wading through the more obscure sections of funding council circulars, Quality Assurance Agency manuals and Audit Codes of Practice, his comment has stayed with me: "Give me Singapore order over Zimbabwe chaos any day."

Fast-forward to today. The University of Exeter's finance director has just completed an enormously complicated deal with the private sector to provide about 2,000 student bedrooms without the university bearing any risk of lack of demand. The deal is the culmination of two years of intricate and demanding professional work and skilled negotiation. This is the world in which universities, as major corporations but always with an academic purpose, now operate. We do this to provide the facilities our students need while preserving our scarce resources for academic purposes.

Yet still I occasionally see references in Times Higher Education's blogs and letters to "the bean counters". To paraphrase Churchill, "Some beans, some counter!" The fact is that half the workforce of UK universities now comprises professional services staff working alongside their academic colleagues.

Given the choice that comes with devolved budgets, academic managers have seen merit in appointing them rather than more academic staff. I am struck at alumni events around the world by how many graduates affectionately recall their tutors, professors and lecturers but also the departmental secretary or porter or the counsellor who sorted out emotional and financial problems. Universities these days are a seamless web of professional support for students, staff, supporters and sponsors. Without that support, academics would spend most of their time administering rather than teaching and researching.

Celia Whitchurch, in her work for the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, has shown how new breeds of "blended professionals" are emerging in higher education, for example in educational enhancement or learning resources. These people have excellent academic credentials alongside highly developed professional skills. As a result, the "them and us" divisions that unproductively marked out the territory of the past are giving way to a partnership model whereby all staff work together for the good of students and universities, with no artificial divisions between academic and "civilian" staff. This trend is particularly marked in a younger generation educated and now employed in the age of mass participation.

As higher education becomes less exclusive, its workforce has become more inclusive, recognising that nothing can be achieved without teamwork. Thankfully, hospitality colleagues are no longer described as "servants" or professional staff defined by what they are not, in the term "non-academic". I refer always to the professional staff and the professional services because the words "professional" and "service" seem to me to epitomise the identity of those who devote their working lives, alongside their academic colleagues, to advancing knowledge and overcoming ignorance and prejudice. We do well to remember this as the electoral sirens start wailing "frontline services" and "more bobbies on the beat". We are all on the front line now.

Like Yeats' school inspector, I find myself (almost) "a sixty-year-old smiling public man" walking metaphorically up and down the aisles inducting new colleagues. Sorry, Sir Edward, they have never been more necessary nor less evil.

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