Snapshot out of focus

September 26, 1997

A leading university administrator has criticised the Dearing inquiry's report on administrative staff as "misleading" and a "gross misrepresentation" of their work.

Peter West, secretary of Strathclyde University, has questioned the representativeness of focus groups on which the research on administrative and support staff was based, involving 32 junior and middle-grade staff at universities in the south of the country.

"This purports to be a snapshot of the experiences of administrative staff, and I think it is nothing of the kind," he said. "Their very narrow range of experience was not representative of the quality of experience of university administrators."

Mr West stressed that he did not challenge the main Dearing report. But the appendix on administrators included comments which gave an impression of a group of people who were ill-equipped and resistant to change.

"I think that is wholly misleading, and bad for the morale of the staff I know who are totally committed to the university and higher education."

Mr West said he had spoken to colleagues in other institutions, all of whom saw it as a gross misrepresentation of staff qualifications and expectations.

He was concerned by a description of categories of staff, based on the focus groups, which a casual reader could think applied to all staff. These included "niche finders", described as "mostly long servers who were not particularly highly qualified", who felt higher education offered an easier life than the private sector.

"So many of my staff are as well qualified as the best academic staff, and have left jobs in the private sector because they see a good future and a real challenge in the university."

Dearing was likely to become a standard work of reference, Mr West said, and the appendix should not therefore be allowed to go unchallenged.

"Perhaps the answer is to conduct a new survey, which might be undertaken by the Association of University Administrators."

Keith Jones, AUA president and academic secretary of Liverpool University, said some comments in the appendix could be criticised as drawing too much on anecdotal evidence, and there was "perhaps a slight imbalance" in the focus groups.

"Whether the AUA would wish to commission a new survey is something we would have to think about," he said.

A spokesman for the Dearing committee said: "This was small scale survey research intended to be supplementary to the main thrust of consultation. This type of research is not intended to be representative. It is to indicate key responses from particular groups which may give you leads as to the view of typical members of that group."

Sir Ron Dearing had made more than 30 visits to institutions across the country, meeting staff of all grades, he said.

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