The people below stairs

We should not be so dismissive of back-office staff, for not only are they vital to the academy, they are human, Paul Greatrix says

July 7, 2011

Credit: Elly Walton

In these straitened times, there continues to be much talk of the savings that universities and colleges could make through outsourcing, shared services or partnerships with private providers. There have been reports that BPP is talking to several universities about bidding to run their non-academic operations. For The Economist, the "hand-wringing over BPP's move to run back-office services" is "insane". Many people ask why, if all private-sector businesses and many public-sector institutions can have their grass cut or their IT support provided by another company, can universities and colleges not do the same?

I find this argument troubling, and I don't think I'm hand-wringing. The issue is the terminology - or more precisely, the attitude behind the casual, unthinking use of the term "back office". Because the first target for consideration for cuts always seems to be back-office staff.

But what exactly is the back office? In a university context, it is generally taken to mean those staff who are neither engaged in teaching or research nor involved in face-to-face delivery of services to students. So they might be, for example, working in IT, human resources, finance or student records. Or they might be the people who maintain the grounds, administer research grants or edit the website.

Too often, their somewhat anonymous roles mean that they are treated as third-class citizens in the university context. Because they are out of sight and largely out of mind, most people really don't know what they do; as a consequence, it becomes much easier for others to write them off and offer them up as the first to be sacrificed when cuts have to be made. Back-office staff do not have an obvious income line and can easily be regarded as expendable. The attitude is resonant of the Victorian view of those "below stairs". This perception (or lack of perception) is unhelpful, and not terribly good for morale - particularly among those who are so casually dismissed as being "just back office".

This situation will not be improved by resort to the easy rhetoric about the importance of staff at all levels having a stake in the mission (spare us another recitation of the apocryphal tale of John F. Kennedy's visit to Nasa during the Apollo programme, when a janitor, asked what he did, told the president that he was working to put a man on the Moon). It requires everyone to have the right attitude to all staff in all parts of the university and to recognise the contributions they make.

It is essential to university success that all the services the institution needs are delivered efficiently and effectively. All these functions are fundamental and necessary. The grass must be cut, staff must be paid, and detailed and accurate student numbers must be submitted to the Higher Education Funding Council for England so that the university can receive its grant. Although provision of such services is not in itself sufficient for institutional success, it is hugely important for creating and sustaining an environment where the best-quality teaching and research can be delivered. Of course this can be done by contracting out to a third party; however, this may not offer the most effective or efficient service in the long run.

But in any position, people - whether they are employed by a university or by a private-sector company - must be treated properly. Universities are special places. Interactions with and understanding of academic staff and students are a key part of every job throughout the organisation. Lock people away in the back office and they might as well be working for a paper wholesaler in Slough.

In a theatre, the front-of-house and back-of-house personnel have different roles and different talents; nonetheless, all are vital in supporting the performance. In universities, all professional services staff, whether in direct contact with academic staff and students or not, contribute to institutional success. Casual talk of outsourcing or downsizing back-office functions undermines this contribution.

So please choose your words carefully. Better still, let's just ban the term "back office".

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