Third spaces and bragging rights: the administrator fights back

April 8, 2010

The growth of "third spaces" between professional staff and academics, and a Star Wars character who described himself as an administrator to impress Princess Leia, were among the subjects discussed at the Association of University Administrators' annual conference.

Maureen Skinner, chair of the AUA, told the closing session of the three-day conference at the University of Warwick that "greater professionalism" would be key in the future, with a weightier emphasis on administrators and managers taking on roles that overlap with academics.

"I do think there will be a growth in these third spaces," she said, with more collaboration and creative working in the future.

The conference had 106 working sessions in total, including "Exploring the academic/administrative divide - career framework opportunities for the 'third space'?"; "Is small beautiful? Is bigger better? Life at different institutions"; and "Escaping the Red Queen effect - conditions for success in the new economics of HE".

In another of the working sessions, Matthew Andrews, academic registrar at Oxford Brookes University, discussed the professionalisation of higher education administration.

He looked at the vexed question of whether administrators should stick with that term, associated by many with passive bureaucracy, or call themselves "managers" or "professional staff".

He highlighted the scarcity of positive uses of the title "administrator" - including a reference in the Star Wars sequel, The Empire Strikes Back, in which one of the characters, Lando Calrissian, brags about being an administrator when meeting Princess Leia.

Mr Andrews argued that alternative terms may be too problematic within higher education, asking: "Should we recapture the term 'administrator'?"

Even the notion of a third space could be read as implying that professional status is only gained by administrators who take on aspects of the academic role, he suggested.

Keynote speakers at the event included Nigel Thrift, vice-chancellor of Warwick; Shirley Pearce, vice-chancellor of Loughborough University; and Anthony McClaran, chief executive of the Quality Assurance Agency.

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