'Selflessness' key to beating the downturn, argues v-c

City University London chief calls for the sector to rediscover its ministering vocation. John Gill reports

November 20, 2008

Reasserting the "selfless" mission of universities and revamping the role of the university administrator will be key to riding out the financial crisis, a university head has said.

Malcolm Gillies, vice-chancellor of City University London, said that in the 19th and 20th centuries higher education had shifted focus from "selfless and ministering" professions to today's business-centred approach.

But he told the Association of University Administrators conference in London that the methods of business, which had been a key influence in changing university administration, had not always served higher education well.

Professor Gillies blamed the promotion of short-term gain at the expense of long-term service for the current world financial crisis.

"We had trained a generation of managers who were 'ministering' ultimately only to themselves," he said. "Business has become the dominating model for changes in university administration."

He called for more flexibility and staff mobility in higher education, broader career paths "and the reinforcement of our unique and selfless mission for education and research" to allow the sector to prosper.

"The importance of selfless activity has been completely downplayed. There's a huge resource of people in the world who are not driven by the bottom line."

He also suggested that the career paths of university administrators should change to offer greater breadth of experience."If you are in the diplomatic corps, you are moved on every two to four years, not just from being in the cultural section to the defence section, but from Angola to Azerbaijan. As a result, after 20 years you have a huge cultural resource and information base which is incredibly useful as a generalist administrator."



It is the "invisible career", lacking proper structure and mobility.

But there are hopes that work to produce a framework for the professional development of administrative staff in higher education will help to improve career progression for the "invisible hands" that hold universities together.

Maureen Skinner, chair of the Association of University Administrators (AUA) and a registrar at Thames Valley University, said the project, funded by the Higher Education Funding Council for England, would be completed next year.

University administration was an "invisible career", she said, and not promoted at graduate fairs, even though it employed 30,000 people.

Speaking at an AUA London conference, Ms Skinner said a lack of mobility between institutions held some administrators back. "Many in the sector have only ever worked in one institution. Sometimes you have to move on to get that breadth of experience," she said.

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