Whisper it: administration can be useful, innovative and even likeable

Scholars must engage with the vital creative support teams that underpin their work. They may even find some satisfaction in paperwork, says Dave Hall

April 9, 2009

One of the biggest myths in higher education, it seems to me, is that all academics hate administration.

Perhaps this is true when academics start their careers, when paperwork and bureaucracy seem a distraction from what one wants to do, be it teaching, research or both.

But once an academic begins to climb the career ladder, administration can become something relatively safe to focus on rather than a task to avoid. It is human nature to gravitate towards what may seem relatively straightforward tasks when faced with very challenging ones, such as leading a discipline. This perhaps partly explains the phenomenon of the academic manager who complains to colleagues about being bogged down by administration but is the first to object if someone tries to take this "burden" away.

However, there are many good reasons why academic managers are more enthusiastic about administration than they may care to admit. The advancement of disciplines requires the support of a modern and flexible administrative framework. Who better to develop such a framework than pro vice-chancellors and other academic managers whose roles straddle academic and administrative work?

The boundaries between the academy and administration have been blurring for a number of years as teaching has evolved into learner support and research extended into managing projects and partnerships. New posts have emerged that do not fit neatly into the administrative/academic pigeonholes. The pace of change over the past five years has convinced me that the traditional divide between academic and administrative roles is now no longer sustainable or even desirable.

This change is well documented, but it is perhaps even more significant than many realise. What the sector needs more than ever is a supportive environment for academics with the vision and the determination to see where their discipline should be going over the next five to ten years and to lead it there. Disciplines are becoming more complex, and interdisciplinary teaching and research are growing in importance. This calls for ever more sophisticated, although not necessarily more complicated, administration.

That is one reason why my university has decided to reorganise itself into colleges led by a pro vice-chancellor. Our college heads have been selected for their strong records in leading their disciplines and their full appreciation of the growing importance of interdisciplinary work. With their calibre and their brief, they cannot be sidetracked by paperwork. In fact, I believe that the administrative structure we have created will make it easier for them to focus on the key issues and overcome any obstacles. Crucially, they will continue to be involved in the development of this structure.

To accommodate the creation of four academic colleges with devolved financial responsibilities, the administration at Leicester is undergoing significant transformation. We plan to unify administrative processes so that their efficiency and effectiveness are not compromised by the new structural boundaries. This means that staff who manage traditional administrative functions - such as supporting admissions, assessment, examinations, progression and graduation - will work as part of a team operating common processes and sharing core systems. It will allow us to manage and develop both administration and the academy to meet the needs and expectations of students and staff, rather than conducting endless negotiations only to achieve inconsistency and fragmentation.

This demonstrates how progressive universities are going beyond simply acknowledging that administration has become much more than a mundane necessity. If institutions are to meet the challenges of competition and change and achieve world-class status, they must embrace the fact that administration is now part of the academy and that it can become a force for innovation if handled creatively and flexibly. Many administrative staff are already involved in learning development, learner support, widening participation and commercialising research. Institutions can no longer expect academics to be the sole drivers of innovation, even in those areas that have traditionally been left to them.

Academics today have little choice but to accept the increasingly important role that administration plays in supporting their work. They should be prepared to deal with administrative duties proactively and creatively, so that this work helps rather than hinders progress in their discipline. By adopting such an outlook, at some point they may well come to see that in reality, deep down inside, they really quite like administration.

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