Administrators still feel like academics’ poor cousins

Universities must improve their career development support for professional and support staff, says Alex Holmes

October 23, 2019
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Academics might often be heard to grumble about the amount of administration they are obliged to do, but the perception that lazy, overly powerful professional staff are twiddling their thumbs while academics do all their work for them couldn’t be further from the truth. Professional services and support staff feel every bit as stretched as academics do. And they also appear to still feel that their academic colleagues are better supported by their institutions than they are.

Over the past decade or so, we’ve seen an attitudinal shift in UK higher education towards a more “businesslike” management model, due in part to increased competition, tighter funding constraints, growing external oversight, and the “student as customer” approach brought about by full tuition fees. In line with this, we’ve seen an increase in more specialist roles among professional services and support staff, at the expense of generalism.

Despite this shift, professional training and structured career development have been arguably less well prioritised than similar activities for academics and researchers. Administrative and professional staff are generally highly motivated and actively seek out training and development – which is, of course, also of significant benefit to their institutions, too. However, they often report feeling hampered by workload pressures and a lack of structured professional development opportunities.

This is borne out by a recent survey that I carried out for my MSc thesis. On the whole, professional services staff agree that their university demonstrates a commitment to supporting their development. Yet half of respondents feel that their institution is less committed to their needs than to those of their academic and research colleagues, and about half also report experiencing barriers to engaging in training or development, such as shortages of time and funding. Workload pressure is an even greater concern among those with line management responsibilities for professional services staff, 60 per cent of whom report that it creates a barrier to staff engagement with training opportunities owing to a feeling that work would only pile up during their absences.

Nor is it just around the provision of protected time off for training or conferences that professional and support staff feel like the poor cousins of academic staff. They raise similar issues around appraisal and the structured development planning and goal-setting which, when done effectively, can power career advancement. Almost a quarter of those I polled don’t have a regular professional development review with their manager, and a further 10 per cent have one less than annually.

Such failings are clearly not universal; areas of excellent practice and supportive management do widely exist. However, it is reasonable to assume that these concerns surface to a greater or lesser extent across the entire UK sector. What, then, is to be done if universities are to meet the needs of an increasingly specialised staff base, on which they equally increasingly rely?

Well, we could start by equalising access to training and conference budgets for all staff, regardless of grade, role or specialism. The idea of “per-head” training budgets for all staff may sit more comfortably with some institutions than with others (cue dark mutterings about devolved governance and locally held staff budgets), but, along with an annualised allowance of protected CPD days, these already exist in many organisations and would go some way towards dispelling the perception of the dice being loaded towards those on the opposite side of the academic/administrative divide.

Allied to this is a need for long-term staff development planning, rather than the short-term “task-based” approach to training often driven more by the need to fill a particular skills gap in a department than by individual needs. Linking training and development objectives to prospective future roles would not only help individuals to better understand their own requirements in line with their career aspirations. It would also aid the scheduling of training provision for institutions and allow greater clarity for managers in identifying objectives for their staff – allowing them to get beyond the annual “so, what courses would you like to go on?” approach. It may even be possible to fund formal schemes out of the apprenticeship levy.

Alongside this, greater emphasis needs to be placed on effective appraisal. Review meetings must be held at least annually, coupled with regular, less formal conversations about career aspirations and development goals. This will likely also require further training for managers themselves; those with responsibility for line management in higher education often obtained those roles for reasons of academic standing or research excellence, rather than because of a proven staff-management track record.

The downsides of that approach may be particularly true where academic staff manage professional services teams, but managers from professional backgrounds are by no means exempt, either, from an excessive – if understandable – focus on getting through the next few months, at the expense of planning for the longer-term future of their department and their staff. And, in the end, both academics and professional staff will suffer if universities find themselves short of the expertise they need to meet the myriad administrative challenges constantly being thrown at them.

Alex Holmes is assistant registrar (joint working) in the Medical Sciences Division of the University of Oxford. He is completing an MSc in higher education leadership, management and administration.


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Reader's comments (2)

If all these professional service staff, who now out number academics, wish to take up time on their training and career development, who will support the academics who are required to do all the complex and difficult jobs that make a University successful: research, teaching, grant writing, outputs , supervision of doctorates? Professional service staff cannot do this. They are there to support academics. Misleading comments about 'poor cousins' serves to obscure the facts that professional service staff and academics undertake different roles.
You are correct that Professional service staff do support Academics - so why wouldn't better trained and motivated ones support them more effectively ? The roles are different but they are equivalent, do the qualified accountants for example do any fewer hours or contribute any less to the University's success than teachers ?