Professional service staff feel ‘undervalued’, study suggests

Senior management do not recognise support staff’s pivotal role in achieving positive student outcomes, administrators say

August 23, 2016
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Unsung heroes: professional service staff ‘are integral’ to good student outcomes, although the link is not always explicit

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.

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Reader's comments (4)

It is axiomatic that those who deliver the main mission of a University need support in doing so; this premise has always been and will always be. From my perspective many, if not most, support staff do indeed feel valued through our constant reinforcement of that axiom across the academic spectrum. It is not always clear why the malcontents on the support side have a beef about where they stand in the primacy of any university's mission. Perhaps it has something to do with the attempted blurring of the lines between support and delivery. Whilst support staff should support academics, and whilst we should deliver the mission, very often new initiatives emanating from 'the centre' impede us in what we are trying to do and, in my view, hinder our ability to deliver. Any new initiative seems to be delivered using the powerful tool of 'supporting students'; reference to such a tool is made in the article. The fact that a support 'facility' exists might suggest (but should not conclude) it's needed; therefore any support manager should have the right to act upon relevant nuances and deliver their thoughts for general discussion. After appropriate consideration we, as academics, should hold the right to refuse any new initiative developed from these thoughts; this right has however been diluted over the years and we are seen as 'difficult' when we try to restore it. Senior support staff of all persuasions have therefore impacted on our; assessment choices, teaching styles, feedback timing, office hours, course designs, attendance behaviour, 'professional' development, ... to name but a few; all under the veil of 'supporting students'. The exponential growth in the numbers involved suggests that the modern student is totally incapable of navigating their way through their student life; such a view actually creates more problems than it solves and is dangerous. We should be trimming back support not bolstering it. If it really does work as our support colleagues would have us believe, I find it peculiar that our students always seem find their way to our offices first.
Whilst it is true that "support staff should support academics" as such a member of the wider team of a University then I view my mission as supporting the University and its students, not just the academics. In the current H.E. Environment that is a different task than than the one which I faced when i started my career. Universities have evolved, support staff and processes have evolved; student needs and expectations have evolved and intensified. This should not be a discussion about primacy / malcontents and 'a beef' but a discussion about complementary roles in a matrix of support.
The issue to me is around terminology - 'support staff' always implies, to me anyway, that we are here to support someone else in the achievement of their job, rather than having our own mission. HR depots would do well to redfine this terminology in job descriptions and so forth. Many university roles are carried out with little or no connection to academics, but those that are are usually delivered by people with a set of professional skills which academic staff might not always be aware of, possibly due to a lack of a title or PhD. Mutual respect is always beneficial.
I fully expected the type of response in those replies posted above; and I empathise with the central thrust of 'we are important people'. It seems my opening statement about the role of 'support staff' was either missed, ignored or both. So I'll repeat that it is AXIOMATIC that we, as academics, COULD NOT deliver our University's mission without support from suitably qualified professionals. My BEEF is with that 'support' which impedes us in our delivery of that mission (support which we probably never requested nor required); my point is that we do not control the support we get and often suffer at the hands of it; I provided exemplars. Yes Universities have evolved and yes some students now have to encounter many hardships and face many different challenges ... but not all of them; in fact most students don't need any support whatsoever. The scale of the support provision is, in my view, simply disproportionate to the need, hence my statement that it should be trimmed. It is not productive to engage in emotionally charged defences of titles and positions but 'support staff' is a current descriptor, so if it needs changing then do something about it, you will probably get backing from the academic staff: but if, and only if, we do not lose that support which we do need, we do ask for and we do require.

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