By the role divided
Amid talk of an iron curtain or apartheid separating them, administrators and academics struggle to find common cause. Hopes of detente lie with the 'blended' professional. John Gill reports
It sounds like a scene from a science-fiction film: a giant monolith, so vast that it blots out the sky, but slowly rotting inside.
But the image is not drawn from the latest Hollywood blockbuster: it is how a university administrator describes the possible future of higher education. His description of a "decaying empire, stagnant on the inside and increasingly irrelevant" is a dark prediction of what will happen if the gap between academics and administrators, an often-cited problem for the university enterprise, is not closed.
This is not the only startling image offered in the pages of an international study that considers whether the two professions remain crippled by mutual mistrust despite their common purpose.
Another contributor conjures up the metaphor of an unhappy arranged marriage, in which both parties struggle to understand, let alone love, the other. A third interviewee depicts support staff as mechanics employed to tune up cars that academics drive around in circles.
The images are quoted in a research paper by Maree Conway, an Australian higher education consultant, who studied attitudes to the issue among 100 administrators, including 70 from the UK and 30 from Australia and New Zealand.
Her aim was to assess whether the academic-administrative divide was myth or reality by asking rank-and-file support staff to describe their relationship with academics. Their responses will worry university leaders, for most were negative.
"If you don't do teaching or research, then (academics believe) you are just a parasite," one correspondent says. "When it all goes wrong, I have to bail the academics out," complains another.
These soundbites provide a snapshot of the tensions within universities, but it is not hard to find first-hand accounts that bring the issue into focus, even from senior administrators.
Matthew Andrews, academic registrar at Oxford Brookes University, describes two recurring scenarios he has encountered during his career that have, at times, caused him to regret his choice of profession.
"The first is when I feel like I have picked the bargain-basement career," he explains. "Everything has to be done cheaply: awaydays tend to be a misnomer, neither 'away' nor a 'day'; long plane journeys are spent cramped in the cheap seats; and every process is value engineered to the point where it barely serves the function for which it was intended.
"All the fluff and fun of my friends' careers, not least the possibility of getting the right tools to do the job, seem notably absent. I console myself with the thought that my career choice occupies the moral high ground by supporting a public good."
Unfortunately, Andrews adds, the second scenario undermines the "moral high ground" where he has sought justification for his choice of career.
"This is when an academic member of staff treats me not only as a lower form of life - a non-academic, an interloper in the academy - but also as a waste of resources."
The damage done to working relationships by the term "non-academic" is highlighted by others, too. Conway, who points out that more than half of all university staff in Australia are "non-academic", says this nomenclature is "outmoded, irrelevant and negative, and does little to reflect the complexity of the work that is needed to manage universities effectively in the 21st century".
Maureen Skinner, chair of the Association of University Administrators (AUA) and registrar of the faculty of arts at Thames Valley University, agrees. But she says the fact that people are not put off administrative roles by the snobbery they may encounter says something about the unique motivation and rewards of working in university settings.
"Why would administrators choose to work in higher education, where there is the potential for them to have their skills, knowledge and experience undermined by being described either as a 'support' category, or by what they are not - a non-academic?
"The answer is that they choose it because it is seen as having value. It is a worthwhile career and is valuable to society."
There are commonalities with people working in the public services, who are motivated by ideals, not financial reward, she adds.
Skinner acknowledges that research commissioned by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education and the Association of Heads of University Administration has found that administrators are more likely to fall into the profession than to choose it specifically. However, she takes comfort from the fact that those who find themselves in such roles, whether by accident or design, tend to stay put.
"That suggests there is something about it that is very attractive to people," she says.
If it is accepted that the divide between academics and administrators exists, and Conway's research suggests that it does, then what form does it take?
Andrews describes two different models for the working relationship within universities.
The first is the "civil servant" model, in which academics take the role of elected politicians, and administrators are expected to do their bidding and stay out of the decision-making process. The second he terms the "cleric" model, with academics equivalent to priests and administrators playing the role of the "laity", with lesser rights and privileges. Both models elevate the academic and diminish the administrator, he adds.
Members of a Times Higher Education reader opinion panel seem to agree with his analysis, with one senior administrator at a new university in northern England saying that, at its worst, the fractious relationship can resemble "an apartheid system".
"In my experience, UK higher education, despite the focus on equal opportunities, can be one of the last bastions of a class system where difference is instantly erected into hierarchy," he says.
"Administrators need to be respected for their professional skills and also as value creators in the modern university. They should not be regarded as hangers-on to the 'real' value creators, the academics."
Despite his misgivings about his choice of career, Andrews says that over the past decade he has noticed a shift in attitudes that he believes will lead to greater cohesion. Although he thinks it is important to acknowledge the "darker moments" he has experienced, he adds: "Fortunately, those moments are rare and, as with my friends in their careers, there is also a good dose of the grass always seeming greener when you are having a bad day."
Andrews' outlook, then, is relatively optimistic, but not everyone agrees that the academic-administrator divide is slowly being consigned to the dustbin of history. Another member of the Times Higher Education reader panel, a lecturer at Cardiff University who asked to remain anonymous, says the relationship is "at an all-time low".
"The role of the academic is being undermined on a daily basis by administrators with little understanding or empathy for academia," she says. "There is a balance-sheet mentality that is polluting the intellectual life of our universities. This has to stop for all our sakes."
Offering a different perspective on the academic-administrator divide is Bland Tomkinson, an adviser on pedagogic development at the University of Manchester. He has been a higher education administrator for 30 years, but much of his work focuses on academic tasks such as teaching, assessment and research. This gives him an interesting view of the sector: he describes himself as a "hybrid", and is a fellow of both the Higher Education Academy and the AUA.
Like the Cardiff lecturer, Tomkinson says that in his experience things have got worse rather than better in recent years. He explains that as universities have grown, administrative roles have become more specialised, leading to "insular" attitudes among administrators who "cannot see the whole picture and like to put everything in neat compartments".
"Thirty years ago, it was not unknown for administrators to move through personnel, estates and finance (departments) without specialist qualifications; that would not happen now," he adds.
He also speaks of the "arrogance" of some academics at Manchester.
"I was at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (Umist) before its merger with Manchester and, perhaps because it was on a smaller scale, or maybe because we worked hard at it, I didn't feel the differences so much. But at the new Manchester, there is almost an iron curtain between administrators and academics."
Tomkinson identifies the size of an institution and its style of management as two key factors maintaining this "iron curtain".
"The management style can lead to a blame culture and a lack of trust, which leads to academics blaming administrators whenever they can, and vice versa.
"Size is also a major determinant. Smaller places can have their problems, but it tends to be one individual, whereas at larger organisations it can be more institutionalised."
He is adamant that mistrust exists on both sides of the divide, and says that having a foot in both camps can feel like being in no man's land.
"In the Umist days, I felt I was a bridge between the two. Academics would come to me and let off steam about the administration without regarding me as an administrator, and administrators would come to me to berate the academics. I had the trust of both sides. But now I feel like I'm in no man's land, and there are an awful lot of people who fall into the same bracket, those involved in e-learning, for example, or librarians, who would not call themselves administrators."
Another administrator who has straddled the divide is Giles Brown, administration/school manager of the School of Geographical Sciences at the University of Bristol.
As editor-in-chief of Perspectives: Policy and Practice in Higher Education, the AUA's journal, one might imagine Brown to be an administrator through and through. But it was not always so - he started his career as an academic, following a PhD with a research fellowship in the department of geography at the University of Cambridge.
He went on to work as a lecturer at Aberystwyth University for eight years, before jumping the fence to join Bristol as a senior administrator in 2002.
Brown says: "I am not a failed academic - I published 14 papers in glaciology during a research assessment exercise period while in this job. So it was a very conscious choice to move into administration, rather than something I was forced into.
"I felt that my impact on the sector, both in terms of teaching and learning, and in research, would be greater doing this than as an academic. I had a number of roles like this during my lectureship in Aberystwyth, and having a taste of it and seeing the impact that effective and educated administration could have on the sector and on my discipline drove my enthusiasm."
He acknowledges that this might be a heretical view to some academics, but he insists that administration is increasingly informed by academic thinking. "My area of research has moved from glaciers to higher education leadership, management, policy and practice, but there is an increasingly academic side to senior leadership and management," Brown argues.
"It is early days, but I would argue that the professionalisation of university administration has come on by leaps and bounds. There are now roles such as pro vice-chancellor (administration) at some universities, and that signals the direction we are moving in."
This argument is supported by Andrews, who also believes that the merging of the academic and administrative processes is a positive step.
"There is a proper place for academic expertise, and it is quite rightly given due respect within the academic environment, but recent years have seen an increasing recognition of the role of professional university administrators: people who are not themselves academics but have empathy for the enterprise and are seen as an essential part of the joint endeavour," he says.
"Effective institutions in the future will embrace only the idea that a job should be done by an individual with the right skills, and not attempt to entrench the divide between different classes of staff."
Whereas Brown moved from an academic to an administrative role, Celia Whitchurch, who has also been editor of Perspectives, moved in the other direction and is now a lecturer at the University of London's Institute of Education.
She has described a new breed of professional manager that is moving into areas of university work traditionally handled by academics.
In Professional Managers in Higher Education: Preparing for Complex Futures, a recent report for the Leadership Foundation, Whitchurch says that the "blended professional" is comfortable working "in ambiguous space between professional and academic domains, capitalising on the sense of 'belonging' and 'not belonging' to both".
Skinner identifies with this blended role, in which senior managers are required to have a foot in both camps. Although she describes herself as an administrator first and foremost, not least because she has a "very strong view that being an administrator is important in its own right", she says that her duties often spill over into the academic domain.
"At the moment I am being asked to report on the connections between student attendance and attrition at Thames Valley," she explains. "It is interesting that I have been asked to do this, because it is essentially an administrative function about how we record student attendance, but I have had to go back to the research that has been done and interrogate the literature to come up with recommendations, so it is definitely crossing over into the academic domain. That is the role of the blended professional."
Skinner started her career in higher education 30 years ago as a junior administrator who was expected to make tea and file papers. Over her career, she has seen the profession evolve.
She acknowledges that people "have stories to tell about being patronised at best and at worst dismissed as an irrelevance", but she questions the logic of people who view those supporting the academic enterprise in such disparaging terms.
"The core business of a university is teaching, research and probably third-stream income. Surely the value of the administrator should be seen in terms of those core functions, not as it relates to the academic endeavour?" she says.
"Where would an institution be if students weren't admitted and enrolled on time? How much funding could we claim? What would the student population say if they were not given professional advice on financial matters? What would students and academics say if marks were not published on time? What would a researcher do without professional advice on research grants, or if their grant applications did not reach the funding body by its deadline?
"I ask these questions because we are talking about the core purposes of a university - teaching and research - and professional services are the glue that enables the organisation to work. I would very much like to see a new interpretation, and one that reflects reality rather than the prejudices of the past."
Skinner offers an anecdote to underline how ludicrous these prejudices can be. "About 20 years ago, an institution was considering opening up its senior common room to non-academic staff, which of course was the terminology used. This was before computers, and there was a typing pool, which was where all the examination papers were typed.
"The argument went back and forth as to whether these non-academics should be allowed into an academic space and, in the end, one bright spark thought they had found the ultimate argument against it.
"They said: 'It is impossible - what if one of them saw an examination paper?' There was a pause, and then someone said: 'But I think they probably typed the papers in the first place.' That is the sort of thing we have had to labour against. I have seen attitudes change, but I am not sure if that is because I am in a more senior role, or whether they have actually changed across the board."
An administrator at a new university, who asked to remain anonymous, offers her perspective.
"There is definitely a 'them and us' culture in higher education, which is all the more surprising when you consider that, for people outside these institutions, universities have an image of being egalitarian left-wing utopias.
"I have been at my university for just over a year and have noticed that there is a caste system in operation: academics, then professional/administrative staff, then everyone else. But it seems to depend on the situation you find yourself in.
"When academics need something from admin staff, they are nice to the point of sycophancy.
"But meet those same academics in another place, such as a work meeting involving other people, or at a work social function, and they will ignore you completely.
"That's when you see the species separating themselves, like animals at a watering hole.
"Moreover, male academics are far worse than female ones, who will at least acknowledge you.
"I find it hard to understand why this should be so, particularly when those of us in administrative jobs are graduates ourselves, so it can't be due to educational differences.
"And I know that the divisions are not all the fault of academics, as administrative staff often form their own cliques, too.
"Maybe this is just how hierarchical organisations operate; friends who work in other sectors tell me the same thing."
Jon Scott, director of biological studies at the University of Leicester, provides an academic point of view.
"Despite the anecdotal perceptions of a 'them and us' culture, I think that the operational relationships between administrators and academic staff have been progressively improving in recent years, and there is a clearer sense of common purpose.
"In my own context, working predominantly in the area of learning and teaching, I find administrative staff are very supportive and there is a strongly collegial relationship.
"There is also a recognition that both sides are under pressure to deliver within their own remits. This can put a strain on the relationship, but common awareness of it is important so that there are realistic expectations on both sides.
"There are, of course, areas of abrasion, as in any relationship. From the academic perspective, these would probably be exemplified by requests for information that appear to duplicate information previously sent or which the administration holds in another form.
"Likewise, just as there are often gaps in communication between individual academics, the same occurs between different administrative offices, so requests for similar information can come from two different offices requiring different formats.
"On the whole, though, my experience as an academic is of an administration that is generally efficient and supportive, and staffed by people who are approachable and willing to help."
THE BLENDED LEADER
Administration was not David Llewellyn's first choice of career - he trained as a pilot in the RAF before he was forced to withdraw because of injury.
Despite this setback, he has managed to carve out a high-flying career in a different sphere, rising through the ranks to be named the next principal of Harper Adams University College.
When he takes up the post in September, he will become one of the first administrators to lead a higher education institution, something that others in the sector have long called for.
Llewellyn, who took a part-time doctorate in business administration and higher education management to further his career, started out as a graduate trainee, working as an administrative assistant at Queen Mary, University of London.
He worked across several departments, which gave him a broad understanding of different aspects of university administration - something that is not always on offer in universities today.
He then moved to King's College London, where he set up the administration of its School of Law as a devolved faculty structure.
"In that role, I had to deal not only with estates matters, but also with student matters, personnel matters and supporting the school in its academic activities," he says.
"That was probably quite helpful in developing myself as what Celia Whitchurch (lecturer at the Institute of Education) has described as a 'blended professional'. It exposed me to academic work in a bit more depth than I might have had in a central administrative role.
"Having that background and that perspective of what academics do is very helpful."
Although he insists that he has never experienced the academic-administrator divide as a difficult and frustrating relationship, Llewellyn says that problems can arise when administrators, particularly those who have entered higher education from other sectors, do not sufficiently understand the needs of academics.
"Universities are complex institutions and there are a variety of different demands on administrators, so you have to be able to work alongside administrative and academic staff if you are going to get the job done," he says. "I have generally had a very good working relationship with academics, but it is about give and take.
"There are plenty of ways of making sure that you get your point across, as long as you are prepared to make it. The academic environment is all about having the opportunity to debate an issue and come to a conclusion."
Some administrators may interpret the robust debate that is the bread and butter of academic life as a challenge to their position. But Llewellyn says he has always found it stimulating.
"If there is a challenge, it is to administrators' professional identity, and they have to take that on the chin and understand that there are other views."
Llewellyn joined Harper Adams as director of corporate affairs a decade ago, and says he saw no reason why an administrator such as himself should not be in charge of a higher education institution.
"There are plenty of talented senior administrators in higher education who might wish to consider taking on the role of the head of an institution.
"The first thing that needs to happen though, and David Allen (registrar at the University of Exeter) has made this point, is that they need to put themselves forward."
Despite his career being something of a Plan B after injury scuppered his career as a pilot, Llewellyn says he has no regrets about the path he has taken.
"After you have flown solo aerobatics, there is nothing quite as challenging as that," he says.
"But there are plenty of challenges in higher education, too, and it is an exciting place to work.
"I just think that we are missing the generalist roles in administration that allow you to get a taste of working right across an institution," he adds.
"It would be nice to see graduate trainees coming into those sorts of roles and building career paths that are broad as well as deep."