Professional support staff's crucial role in improving student outcomes is often overlooked by senior management, a study claims.
While academic support staff are often credited with keeping a university ticking over, their direct contribution to raising student satisfaction scores, reducing dropout rates and aiding graduate employment rates is felt to be largely ignored, according to the analysis, published in the Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management last month.
Based on interviews with 28 academic support staff at universities in the UK and Australia, the paper, titled “Exploring the contribution of professional staff to student outcomes: a comparative study of Australian and UK case studies”, says that while “middle managers (immediate supervisors) were viewed as positively valuing their staff that was not the case with senior management”.
Teaching satisfaction scores, as measured by the UK's National Student Survey, were a good example of where the contribution of professional service staff was overlooked, with the lion’s share of credit generally going to academics, one of the report’s authors, Julie-Anne Regan, an education developer at the University of Liverpool's Centre for Lifelong Learning, told Times Higher Education.
“Student satisfaction scores are hugely influenced by a whole range of professional services, from IT to library provisions and careers advice to counselling,” said Dr Regan.
“Professional service staff are integral to the success of achieving student outcomes, although their job descriptions do not always make this link explicit,” she added.
Even satisfaction scores for assessment – generally perceived as the preserve of academics – were heavily dependent on having an efficient system for processing students’ work, Dr Regan said.
“If you have an electronic-based submission scheme, you need someone to set this up and make sure that it is working properly,” she said.
“Students don’t make any distinction between the academic and administrative side of things when they are rating their overall experience – it’s the partnership between the two that matters,” Dr Regan added.
Some academics also ignored support staff’s hard work in achieving high outcomes, which was part of a “them and us attitude” between administrators and academics, the report also says.
However, academics who felt that administrators did not care as deeply about their work were misguided, said Carroll Graham, a senior research consultant at the University of Technology Sydney, who co-authored the study with Dr Regan.
“Professional staff are very clear about their roles supporting students and contributing to their success – motivations which are often overlooked by institutions,” said Dr Graham, who said that the responses from British and Australian administrators interviewed for the study were very similar.
“Making a difference to someone's life…[at a] crucial time for them is what I'm in it for,” stated one UK-based academic support staff member.
“Professional staff barely get a mention in institutional reviews, but they make up about half of university staff and their role in achieving strong student outcomes should not be underestimated,” Dr Graham added.