Good service from the admin office

April 10, 1998

MEASURING the quality of service students receive in higher education has focused on teaching and learning, which can be inspected and audited according to set standards and procedures.

But can and should the quality of service students get be judged only by the teaching and learning process? Many administrators would say that the quality of administrative work itself has been neglected for too long.

As universities and colleges adopt a modular framework for course provision, the organisational demands on students have risen in tandem with the added workload for academics.

If universities and colleges are to respond effectively to the Dearing report on higher education and start to provide students with quality of service, then faculty administration is in need of a shake-up from the bottom up.

Faculties or departments in many institutions have traditionally focused purely on secretarial support when thinking about administration.

But if directors, deans or heads of departments are in doubt about the complaints against their administrative skills, they need only sit in their university canteen and listen to the groans, moans and complaints from students. Students do not just expect quality in teaching but in everything about their course. This is not about giving students a good social life or ensuring that they can study in a pleasant environment.

For students it means getting their work back on time, having access to the administrative office during working hours, obtaining information efficiently and effectively on anything from examinations to semester dates, and being able to get in touch with academics.

A faculty office does not close or "go anywhere" during the academic year. It should be the focal point of the faculty through which students, academics and support staff communicate.

With the support of the dean/head of department and all the faculty staff, the office should be a pro-active, innovative, informed, effective and efficient unit providing information, support for students and administrative systems that ensure quality of service.

Administrative staff should not be regarded simply as secretarial support but as essential and respected members of the faculty who are the interface between the teaching and non-teaching areas and the academics and students.

Skilled and experienced managerial administrators need to be employed to lead these units.

Academics are not administrators and should not be expected to assume this role. Administrators are professionals who, while they must take account of the needs of the students, academics and other support staff, need to be able to execute their jobs with cooperation and minimal interference. There is no place for a "them and us" attitude between academics and support staff.

Administrators need to be equipped with the skills and given the resources to enable them to provide an accurate, efficient and effective service to students, academics and other support staff.

Students will not and should not tolerate being palmed off with poor quality service. The failure to provide a letter for a student who had requested it a week earlier and who had been promised it within two days, or the academic failing to hand back essays by an agreed date and time is poor service.

The whole faculty needs to work together and be accountable. Morale, which has plummeted because of the pressures on the higher education sector over the past few years, also needs a boost. If universities and colleges prioritise the development of the administration unit then maybe students will start to receive the quality of service that many argue has been absent.

Michelle Morgan has worked as an administrative manager at the University of Brighton and at Buckinghamshire University College.

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