Underpaid, overlooked

November 16, 2001

Universities should recognise the value of non-academic support staff, argues Valerie Atkinson.

The problems experienced by academic support staff are well known: their increasing isolation; their invaluable contribution; their overlooked skills. A similar situation exists among non-academic support staff - in particular, among university secretaries. But with one crucial twist. Not only are their contributions overlooked, they continue to suffer the humiliation of low pay and effective invisibility, exactly as described in a THES article in July 1986.

Some things have changed. Over those 15 years, secretaries have had to acquire specialist knowledge. They have had to learn - on the job - advanced computer systems, complex communications, staff management, university funding, teaching and research review. Their expertise is essential to the core of the university structure. But their exploitation has not changed. Their pay and conditions remain as out of sync with their skills as in 1986.

Recent government policy has imposed an economic straitjacket on higher education, tied with the laces of greater accountability. Senior academics address the issues, undertake a number of tasks themselves, and then delegate, delegate, delegate. Unfortunately, at department or faculty level there is no established middle management so an increased load falls on secretaries. But the space they inhabit, as perceived by the hierarchy, remains obstinately diminutive, because that load is absorbed as if it were merely an extension of their original duties.

There are two particular ways of characterising a British university: one as a rarefied place of high-flown intellectual standards, populated by distinguished eccentrics, their heads too full of ideas to consider such mundane issues as secretaries' pay; the other as a liberal academy at the cutting edge of modern thinking, where notions of exploitation and discrimination would be anathema. The truth is somewhere between the two.

There is an institutional desire to address equal-opportunity issues. Underlying this, however, is a history that has yet to be shed: an endemic, institutionalised base of sexism, racism, class snobbery and intellectual elitism. The secretary sits alongside the likes of technicians, porters, domestic staff and library assistants at the heart of this dichotomy. On pay, it is unlikely that government initiatives on equal opportunities will compel universities to look far beyond the gender disparity among academics and their academic-related peers. Without a clear directive, the plight of the secretary may never be considered, and a source of potential managers will remain untapped.

If you measure secretaries by their verbalised value, you'll hear phrases such as "she's the one who really runs the department" or "ask the boss". Such remarks do not flatter, but patronise, because measured by their remunerated value (£14,000-£16,000), secretaries become blurred, reduced to multiple fragments: their tasks routine, their responsibilities unimportant.

A combination of sexism and elitism is to blame. Secretaries still carry the baggage of the female condition. They are experts at soft skills - counselling students, greeting visitors, doing the ground work for innumerable board meetings and inspection visits. In addition, they specialise: calculating examination marks, managing student admissions and student records, balancing accounts. Any one of these skills - on its own, especially if performed by a man - would have a grand title and be well paid. Yet this multitasking ability conspires with elitist attitudes to render the whole somehow lessened.

Mirrored in the wider commercial world, the university structure has colluded in changing the nature of secretarial work. But it is that same structure - underscored as it is with an enduring stereotype of woman as serf - that robs university secretaries of the right to ownership of their duties. Ask for a higher grade - a rise in salary - and back comes the reply: "Surely there is an academic who is responsible." Her endeavours appropriated, the university secretary's position remains forever subordinated to higher authority, to invincible intellects.

Forget the glass ceiling, it is the glass eye of the institution that wilfully refuses to witness - or to utilise and reward properly - the value of its secretarial staff.

Valerie Atkinson is a department administrator at the University of York.

* Do universities value their non-academic support staff enough? Email: soapbox@thes.co.uk

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