‘Non-academic’ staff in the academy

One of the refreshing aspects of my university, Robert Gordon University, is that it makes few distinctions between those employees who have academic tasks, and those whose work is administrative, secretarial, technical or professional. There is no hierarchy of decision-making that places the latter groups in a less favourable position. This is significant, because in most other universities I know there appears to be open or covert warfare between academics and others.

I once attended a meeting of one of the learned academic bodies and was astounded to hear a very senior professor from another institution argue that administrators were a cancer in the academic system, but I was even more alarmed when that statement was greeted with mutters of approval by many others present. Academics, the speaker suggested, were entitled to expect priority support from, more or less, an obsequious caste of non-academics seeing to their needs. More nods and sotto voce statements of agreement.

One of the key requirements for any successful organisation is that its key members and employees see themselves as being in the same family, group or team. I have seen more energy wasted in in-fighting between groups than I care to remember, and it helps nobody. But there should in any case be an ethical principle that expects and observes basic equality between different types of staff, whoever they may be.

Those commenting on higher education often ask whether the proportion of administrative and support staff is higher than it should be, with the unspoken assumption that a percentage closer to zero is ideal. This is not a good starting point, since without administrative and other support functions we are always at some risk that we cannot adequately provide student services and high value research.

Of course academics are usually the front line staff who provide the teaching and research functions that represent the university’s core business, and all staff need to recognise that and work accordingly to facilitate this function. But we are all part of the collegiate group, and nobody should be allowed to look down on people in other parts of the organisation. I believe that, by and large, we have got this pretty much right in RGU.

One way in which we might express this better is by finding an label that is better than ‘non-academic staff’ for those who are not professors, lecturers or researchers. It is demeaning to define a role by saying what it is not – there must be a more positive way of expressing it. That is something the academy could usefully concern itself with.

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24 Comments on “‘Non-academic’ staff in the academy”

  1. Great commentary on one of the real problems in Universities. as a non academic employed in a very senior role within a university, I can honesty say in a thirty year career spanning several industries I have never seen the like of it anywhere else. Even in my own university, non academics are treated as second class citizens and there is the false perception that academics are the engine room of the business. Given my experiences, I would doubt many universities would run well if it relied on one class over the other, but non academic staff who have much to contribute equally to the success of the business are left to feel as though their contribution is not as great.

    • no-name Says:

      “academics are the engine room of the [university]”

      It is true — they are.

      • MunchkinMan Says:

        Your assertion is not quite accurate, IMO. It is perhaps more accurate to say that the engine room, in this case, where university academic teaching and research programmes are devsied and rolled-out, is staffed by academics, yes. But there are others in the engine room of whom the academics require input (both practical and theoretical). These groups are the most closely associated with the academics for the transfer of core subject knowledge to the student, and include post-graduate students, post-docs, laboratory technicians and formal demonstrators, and information technology & specialist subject library staff. The engine room can be a pretty crowded place!

        • no-name Says:

          “These groups are the most closely associated with the academics for the transfer of core subject knowledge to the student….”

          It is telling that your formulation uses academics as the point of reference for the other groups noted as relevant in universities.

          The two constituencies necessary to a university are academics and students — without either of those groups, the institution in question ceases to be a university. In contrast, a university can still reasonably be called such even if it lacks technicians.

          This is not to deny the usefulness of the other roles you mentioned (indeed, some of the groups named are subcategories of students); rather, what is denied here is the implicit claim that it is essential to a university to fill those roles, where those roles require filling, with individuals who are not academics or students.

          Less still does a university need administrators, support staff, who feel bent on running a university as a “business”.

          • MunchkinMan Says:

            I concede absolutely that teaching/academic staff are essential to the construct that is known as a university. Of course, without their passion, knowledge of their subject (Maters, Doctorate, publications, memberships) and their credentials to teach students (such as a Higher Diploma in Education), the student would be poorly served (as many currently have been in my 36 years working in a university environment). For goodness sake, wake-up NO-Name: the best, the BEST universities in the world are run as abusiness. Education is a business. To be anything less is to inhabit the world of the amateur, a world of castles in the air, phantom academics, frustrated students, pathetic and under-funded facilities. The student of today has expectations of universities, where the student experience demands well run and maintained labs, failsafe information systems (library, student records, student finance, etc), excellent and well-run examination arrangements, well maintained sports and student society facilities, healthy and safe buildings, happy and well organised graudation ceremonies. All these endeavours are competently undertaken by support staff many of whom are professionally competent in their own field, many being former university graduates in commerce and business studies. There’s your clue, Sherlock:)…Anyway, isn’t there a saying that goes something like: ‘Those who CAN, do – those who CAN’T, teach.’ Also, there’s an OED definition of the word academic: (paraphrasded as) of no pratical relevance….

          • no-name Says:

            “Those who CAN, do – those who CAN’T, teach.”

            Those who OBSTRUCT, administrate.

          • MunchkinMan Says:

            Nice one No-Name:), and those who don’t OBSTRUCT…?

          • no-name Says:

            Those who do not obstruct are busy both doing their research and their teaching to a high standard.

  2. MunchkinMan Says:

    In the university where I work there are two broad categories of employee: 1. Academic staff. 2. Support staff. Being in the latter category where we were once given the moniker (translated as) The Other Staff it is curious to see that the academic staff somehow think that we exist to support them, a notion that you raise and support in your piece above. However, the university where I work once styled itself as ‘a student-centred university’, and maybe still does. That being the case then all staff are here to support the student in their learning experience (we also have a v/p for the Student Experience). Academics are merely one category of staff that have a particular function, albeit central to the aim of any university.

  3. Professional support staff?

  4. anna notaro Says:

    “Those commenting on higher education often ask whether the proportion of administrative and support staff is higher than it should be, with the unspoken assumption that a percentage closer to zero is ideal.”

    I am not sure that this is an accurate description of the various critical views regarding the proportion of administrative staff in universities and, most importantly of the context from which such critical views arise. As Benjamin Ginsberg, a professor in the department of political science at Johns Hopkins University, argues in The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters, the growth in the number of administrators has vastly outstripped that of academic staff over the past four decades, this has had a whole set of negative implications, not least upon the cost of higher education, see his piece: “Administrators Ate My Tuition”
    For a defence of the role of the administrators see Paul Greatrix (Registrarism) blog post which exposes the rhetoric behind some of the criticism (“The Imperfect University: First for the chop”

    Perhaps a good start would be not only to come up with a better nomenclature (academic support or academic related staff for example), but define clearly what such categories include in order to avoid confusion especially between administrators and managers. It is also worth remembering that ‘academic’ is by no means a monolithic category!

    Personally, I’m very sceptic of the good olden days rhetoric, (the academic arcadia of forty years ago) clearly these days there is a lot more to be done to support the student experience, a great deal more regulation to deal with and ever more support required to help academics do the best job they can. Equally though the ‘corporatization turn’ (to borrow an expression typical of the social sciences) of HE has profoundly altered the academic ethos, created artificial barriers between teaching and research activities and among the various professional roles within the academic community. Competition and collegiality make for very odd bed fellows.

  5. MunchkinMan Says:

    Universities are a rare example of The Professional Bureaucracy, as described by Mintzberg in his analysis of organisational groups (for a quick guide see: http://www.lindsay-sherwin.co.uk/guide_managing_change/html_change_strategy/07_mintzberg.htm). A professional bureaucracy is characterised by a broad and relatively planar professional group, the ‘front line staff’, in this case the academic staff, linked by a narrow management/coordinating middle line (heads of units, deans of schools and colleges, directors of research institutes) to a strategic apex (the university president, academic council, whathaveyou…). Added as necessary but separate from the professional group is the Technostructure (lab techs, library, computer services, etc) and the Support Staff (admin, estate management, student services, etc). Members of this Professional Group (according to Dawson, S. 1988, Analysing Organisations, pub.Macmillan, London) are required to have a mebership controlling entry into the profession, a rigorous and lengthy training and indoctrination over a period of years, restricted entry, prescribed codes of ethics and behaviour, a proclaimed concern for client groups, peer-group evaluation and promotion, and a possession of status and mystique. LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, I give you the reason why the university is the way it is.

    • E Du C Says:

      I don’t really understand the point of this rant other than the fact that MunchkinMan doesn’t really know much about universities or management. Henry Mintzberg is probably the biggest charlatan in the field of Strategy.

      • MunchkinMan Says:

        …to which other charlatans in the field in the field of Strategy are you comparing Mintzberg with, and why is the biggest?

  6. Way off on a tangent – my first job was Lab Technician in a Uni. The main professor had his own secretary who devoted all her time to him and his needs. She was a terror in the department, virtually ran the whole place because no one dare stand up to her.
    This was a microcosm of the university system at that time.
    There were many examples of happy mediums, of course.

    They all came and went. As will, no doubt, this current situation.

  7. E Du C Says:

    It’s also quite lazy to bundle administrators into one category as there are quite a number of different types, all relying on transfers of resources from central admin which comes from fees for our courses. These jobs include recruitment and marketing, business development, IT, learning support, student support, office management, alumni relations, strategic support, student engagement, health and safety, compliance with auditing/TRAC etc They all perform different roles but are united in two ways- they don’t teach and the don’t bring in income, except perhaps bus development/recruitment and marketing.

    What worries me most is the fact that it is hard to evaluate the effectiveness and contribution of non-academic staff to unis. We set KPIs, monitor NSS scores and student evaluations of academic staff who are constantly under pressure to publish or perish etc etc but non-academic staff seem to have an easier ride.

    A good example is the fundraising office. What happens if they don’t hit their targets or in many cases miss them by around 50%? Oh well, the market is tight and there’s a lot of competition out there. That’s why we need more resource, they will say.

    But when an academic colleague’s dept’s NSS scores were lower than the uni average for three years in a row, alas the dept closed down and my colleague was made redundant. Common purpose? Naaaaaa!

  8. no-name Says:

    “For goodness sake, wake-up NO-Name: the best, the BEST universities in the world are run as abusiness. Education is a business. To be anything less is to inhabit the world of the amateur, a world of castles in the air, phantom academics, frustrated students, pathetic and under-funded facilities.”

    All evidence I have points to the fact the claim above is false. In fact, the BEST universities in the world are not run as businesses. Rather, the BEST universities I know are run as universities.

    Further, anyone who thinks that business provides a positive model of governance and good decision making appears to be ignoring rather painfully impinging facts of life on this planet for the last several years. If I am asleep, then it is because you are dreaming that I am as you suffer the throes of dementia. Banks, a keystone in the industrial complex, have been spectacularly poorly run, and all of society has suffered the results.

    Shall we therefore invite the detritus of the banking industry to advise in the running universities as well as they have run their own businesses? Using the logic of your aphorism, it seems likely that only the detritus of industry is available to advise, if the best are doing their industrial things.

    When, in your memory, has a university touted as among the world’s best gone bankrupt? In contrast, I wager that you can easily think of failed banks and failures among the staid, formerly touted as among the best, in the rest of industry. Universities, qua universities, have never caused the scale of socio-economic damage that industry has.

    Yes, some aspects of education have been commercially exploited. Bottom feeding fish thrive on detritus.

  9. Eddie Says:

    “For goodness sake, wake-up NO-Name: the best, the BEST universities in the world are run as abusiness. Education is a business. To be anything less is to inhabit the world of the amateur, a world of castles in the air, phantom academics, frustrated students, pathetic and under-funded facilities”

    Agree 100%. Take for example, Scottish universities try their best to “pull in ” as many fee-paying English students ( each comes with £9000 per year) as they can, for what purpose, otherwise, I wonder.

  10. James Fryar Says:

    I once had a computing class to teach and the exam, needless to say, required a lab with computers. I wrote my exams, filed them off with the exams office, and went along with my teaching. Until a week before the exam when someone from the registry phoned to ask what room I had booked for the exam. Room? Booking? Wasn’t that the job of the Exams Office? No … apparently not. And with two days to go before the exam I ended up trying to find a spare room that could seat 30 students with spaces between them. I ran around the university until I managed to borrow 30 laptops from another department, and spent about 12 hours making sure that all the software the students needed was installed correctly on each of the 30 machines.

    Now, the point of my little anecdotal story is that no, I don’t discriminate between academic and non-academic staff. I know few academics who do. But the reason you have the sort of issues described in your piece has nothing to do with respect and everything to do with trying to operate in a system which often breaks down and responsibilities become blurred. Team work requires systems that operate effectively. The problem with most universities is that they don’t operate efficiently.

    You mail finance a document, they return it saying there’s something wrong. You phone them up and they then explain what the problem is. You make the changes and re-submit it. And the change could’ve been done by the person identifying the problem and resolved if they’d phoned back. But no.

    You send exam results to the exams office and then copy them onto a usb key to run them across (not email, no no, they don’t like that) to the faculty office. Who then print them out and re-enter them by hand back into an excel spreadsheet so they can send it back to you for programme board meetings. Fantastic!

    You need to organise a conference. Poster boards? Sure they’re kept by someone off the other side of the campus who’ll look at you suspiciously when you want to use them. Set them up? Ah sure you’ll have to rope all the post-grads in to do that because there’s no one else to move them from one end of the campus to the other. And the security guys with their pickup trucks and electric vehicles don’t like it if you ask for a lift!

    New research equipment? Well, the porters don’t like moving stuff around the campus. So when it’s delivered out the back, you’ll get a few of stout post-grads, scour the planet for a pallet truck, and pray there will be no injuries as they manhandle hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of kit through doors that are always fractionally too small to fit it all in.

    Tables? Ah now, you can’t be moving tables around even though you’re running a workshop that needs them laid out in a particular way. But we’ll put them back the way they were, you plead. Oh alright then, but I’m locking up at 5 pm. Five? The conference won’t end until seven! Oh, look here’s the key. Lock up after your done, drop it off to security, and then send me an email to say you did it. And put the tables back as you found them.

    That’s the reality of university life. As I said, it’s not the people. It’s not about equality. It’s not about snobby academics looking down on support staff they consider to me nothing more than minions. It’s the system. It’s the constant battle to get the little things done because it’s no one’s job. Those ‘little things’ are not high on the strategic plan of the university president. And yet they’re the things that grate and cause the sorts of comments you’ve mentioned in your piece.

    • MunchkinMan Says:

      Oh, the irony of it all! Many universities have academic staff who actually teach students the principles and best practices of Systems Engineering, Information Technology, Business Studies, Accountancy and Finance, Business and Commerce Management, etc, etc. I totally agree about the ‘system’, but I beg to differ in that I think it IS about the people, for they manage the system (at least, the System Managers do and the persons to whom they are responsible to, the University Management Team).Where I work, the UMT is comprised of the President, Registrar, Vice-Presidents, Bursar, Secretary, and 1 or 2 other senior office holders. THEY are the persons responsible for efficient systems, clear accountability, and sufficient resourcing. The academic programmes, including examination arrangements and all other ‘support’ functions to the academic imperative, are the business of the UMT (comprised principally of members of the academy). Following on from my opening sentence, it appears that many universities while teaching best practice cannot in fact implement in their own back yard?

      • James Fryar Says:

        Well, I think the problem is that when university presidents talk about non-academic staff, what they tend to focus on is the ‘high level’ stuff. Things like research support officers, project managers for say Horizon 2020, funding managers, commercialisation officers, etc. Most of whom, you’ll find when you start digging, are degree, MSc, MBA, PhD level people who moved from the academic side to the administrative side during the course of their careers.

        What then happens is that there’s a vacuum at the opposite end. The murky world of the day-to-day running of a university. In this arena, job specs are nebulous. Responsibilities are vague. And what you quickly learn in any university is that ‘to get A done, you must talk to person B and only person B, because person C won’t help you within the time frame you’ve got’.

        So yes. I agree with you. What needs to happen is that the senior administrative staff need to come down from their ivory towers now and then and actually see what’s involved in doing something simple – like, say, inviting 10 academics for a meeting on a topic, or inviting a guest lecturer, or organising a simple poster show-and-tell for post-grads, or trying to set up a lab for a school demonstration. It’s only when you have to actually do these things that you realise just how badly universities function and how everything suddenly becomes the role of the academic. Every university I’ve been to has this ground-level deficit of ‘support’. And if you can’t get the little things right, how on earth can anyone have confidence that universities are doing the big things right!

  11. Sam Butler Says:

    In my experience academic staff fall to pieces when asked, “Can you show me how to do that?”
    Without people to offer practical skills many university courses would cease to exist.

  12. Mr. L Says:

    Non-academic professional employees in higher education are responsible for day-to-day operation of the universities; therefore, they are as important as the other employees. To reduce the status of differences among employees it is critical that members are viewed as equals ( Birnbaum, 1998)

    Mr. L.

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