Mobility Really Matters

The Imperfect University: Staff getting on their bikes

(an updated version of a post from a while back)

One of the things professional services colleagues sometimes complain about is that whereas  academic staff can be promoted in post – and indeed can progress all the way from lecturer to professor in the same academic department – they can’t. Instead to advance their careers administrators have to move – either elsewhere in the institution or to another university. This is often presented as a problem whereas I have to say I think it is much more of a positive position. Whilst there is something to be said for having people in post in administrative roles in central or academic departments who know their jobs inside out, who carry a sense of the institutional history and provide the continuity between rotating professors as heads of department, there is also a difficulty in such longevity in one particular role. Essentially the challenge is this – many intelligent, creative and able administrators, no matter how committed to a particular department or institution, can, unless they are given new challenges and fresh stimulus in their job, sometimes become dull, stale and bored. They may, no matter how able, become less productive over time as tedium and routine replaces challenge and excitement. I should stress that this is not always the case and is challenged as a proposition by some of my colleagues.

In my view the way to address this issue is not to argue for the opportunity for professional services staff to be promoted in role (although if their job does change radically then the regarding opportunity will exist) – this is the wrong way of approaching the matter. Rather there should be the possibility of moving staff regularly to new roles in different parts of the university to provide them with new challenge and stimulus. Ultimately this not only gives people more satisfaction in their work and makes them more productive but, because it broadens their experience too they become more employable in other roles and stand a better chance of securing a more senior role in their current or another institution.

Times Higher Education carried a piece a while ago on the development of university leaders and noted the success of the University of Warwick in this regard. One of those things for which the administration at Warwick under Mike Shattock and subsequently was famed was the propensity for moving staff around to ensure they gained new experiences and enjoyed exposure to new ideas and new work opportunities to keep them interested, stimulated and challenged. This was my experience at the University (I had seven different jobs in just under nine years at Warwick) and I found the experience hugely beneficial.

This is hard to do though. Given the structures in universities which often involve significant devolution to academic units and therefore means that administrative staff can be located in dispersed teams at Department, School or Faculty level the managed redeployment or rotation of staff can be extremely difficult to organise. Professional specialisms – in HR, Finance, IT, and Estates – make such rotation even harder although I would suggest that the previous decline of the generalist administrator has been reversed and it is perfectly possible for specialists to transfer into and succeed at more generalist roles (although rarely vice versa).

The Higher Education sector in the UK employs over 380,000 staff of whom 200,000 work in non-academic roles and professional services (HESA 2010/11 data). Whilst the career route is well defined and understood for academic staff (albeit an extremely tough profession to enter), entry to HE administration is less well defined. There is a national pay spine but grades for administrative staff vary across the sector. The entry level for graduates is generally understood but no common graduate scheme exists, unlike in the NHS which has had a well-developed national scheme for prospective NHS managers operating successfully for many years. A small number of institutions have operated local graduate trainee programmes down the years but they have not really taken off in any significant way.

In the absence of any national graduate entry programme and the challenges with managed rotation one alternative approach is to introduce a variety of work opportunities at the beginning of administrators’ careers. As well as providing a clear opportunity for entry to a career in higher education administration this was part of our motivation at the University of Nottingham for introducing our own local Graduate Trainee Programme in 2008.

An extract from the last advertisement for the programme gives a flavour of the opportunity:

This Graduate Trainee Programme offers an invaluable opportunity to prepare talented, hard-working and enthusiastic Nottingham graduates for a management role within this stimulating setting.

The programme is aimed exclusively at University of Nottingham graduates interested in developing a career in university administration. It offers an invaluable insight into this dynamic management activity whilst developing an understanding of:

  • markets
  • income streams
  • resource allocation processes
  • client bases including students, funding bodies, commercial partners and employers.

The programme offers four trainees the opportunity to experience key components of university operation and build an understanding of the institution’s strategy.

Over 12 months the trainees undertake a planned rotation of placements in different areas of the University, reporting to senior staff. Placements will be across Professional Services and Schools, and trainees may have the opportunity to work at one of the University’s international campuses in Malaysia or China.

Placement areas may include:

  • Academic Services
  • Business Engagement and Innovation Services
  • Research and Graduate Services
  • Human Resources
  • Finance and Business Services
  • Student Operations
  • Governance
  • Marketing
  • Admissions

Successful trainees will gain the transferable skills necessary to move on to positions within the University with a clear understanding of how a large university operates. Outstanding performance on the programme may facilitate a longer term opportunity at Nottingham.

This kind of programme gives trainees a wide range of experiences early, sets them up well, gives them a rounded view of university operations both from departmental and central perspectives. It also makes them extremely employable and almost all of the graduates of the Nottingham GTP have gone onto subsequent employment within the University or at other HE institutions.

Having run successfully for four years at Nottingham this model has now been adapted and developed as a national scheme, Ambitious Futures, supported by AHUA (the Association of Heads of University Administration) and now involving over 20 universities (including Nottingham) in recruiting for the 2015 intake.

The UK higher education sector really does need such a scheme and this programme is already developing a cadre of senior managers for the future who have not only undertaken a variety of roles in their home institution but have also had a range of experiences in another university too.

Excellent universities need outstanding managers who have broad experience and are able to take an institutional view where necessary. Mobility and dynamism of staff is key to achieving this and is in interest of both professional staff and their institutions. Ambitious Futures offers the prospect of achieving this in a widespread and sustainable way which can only be beneficial for universities in the UK.

 

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The Imperfect University: 2013 collection

Because universities are still difficult, but still worth it

With the latest post, on Robbins, we are now up to a total of 18 pieces to date in the Imperfect University series. Covering a wide range of occasionally relevant issues I do hope there is something for everyone in here. And there is a question at the end.  Anyway, do let me know what you think – here are the posts from 2013:

The first chapter

A collection of the first series of Imperfect University posts from 2012

Sectoral change since Robbins and into the future

A piece based on a conference presentation looking at changes in higher education in the past 50 years and what the future might hold.

Rational admissions

On why it is time to look again at a move to post-qualification admissions or PQA.

Know your history

A piece about the value of a well-developed sense of institutional history.

The end of internationalisation?

Why MOOCs really aren’t going to end universities’ international activities.

Free information?

On the problems with and impact of freedom of information requests.

What do we know about leadership in higher education?

Not a great deal seems to be the answer.

Truly transnational

A look at the dimensions of a genuinely global higher education operation.

Finally, from the top – The Imperfect University provides the original introduction to the series

More to follow in the year ahead. In the meantime, here’s a question. Is it time for an Imperfect University book?

Whatever the answer, will keep the series going.

The Imperfect University: The End of Internationalisation?

Is it the end for internationalization?

No. It’s not a bubble. It’s not bursting.

A recent Chronicle blog suggested that, in common with some other higher education activities, internationalization was a bubble and about to burst. It isn’t. International student recruitment patterns continue to evolve, some branch campuses are less successful than others and the global economic downturn is having an impact on everyone. This doesn’t mean international higher education is finished.

Unfortunately though it does seem that with all of the hype around MOOCs and the talk of the havoc that this disruptive innovation will wreak on higher education it is beginning to feel that internationalization is last year’s topic for university leaders. Leaving aside the fact that online learning, in whatever form, can largely be offered freely across national borders, the key issue here is the challenge presented by MOOCs to the traditional campus experience, especially when it is on an offshore campus.

The argument goes that if students can access university courses wherever they are why would they need to travel to a campus overseas (or a branch campus in their own country) to do so. At a stroke therefore transnational education and student mobility are eliminated and branch campuses, of which there are now in excess of 200 with at least another 37 on the way (according to the latest OBHE survey from January 2012), will inevitably wither and die.

First, I really don’t think all the MOOC hype sounds the death knell for internationalization of higher education. It remains a huge and growing market across the world with over 3.5m (in 2009) of the world’s higher education students studying in countries other than their own and growth rates in tertiary education and student mobility only expected to slow a little over the next period (according to the British Council’s Shape of Things to Come report).

Second, the campus offer remains a hugely attractive one. Whether it is a UK, US or Australian university or the Chinese, Malaysian or UAE campus of a western institution, the nature of the experience, the quality of delivery and the employment prospects offered by successful completion of a degree all still look like a pretty good option, wherever you are in the world.

University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus

University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus

Third, in terms of promoting the home institution overseas, whilst a couple of snappy MOOCs might look like they have some decent enrolments, there really isn’t a substitute for a substantive in-country presence for raising profile.

Fourth, when western governments start getting sniffy about visas then the branch campus option nearer home (which is usually cheaper too) looks increasingly like a sensible option.

Fifth, universities are, of course, about much more than just content delivery. Developing a comprehensive branch campus offer doesn’t just mean offering courses, it’s also about engaging with students in a different cultural context, establishing new research and knowledge transfer activity (including bilateral investment opportunities) and playing an active part in a community in another country.

Sixth, as the OBHE report shows, branch campus numbers continue to grow as universities realize the long term benefits of establishing a physical presence overseas. And whilst NYU seems to have run into some difficulties at home in persuading its faculty of the merits of its international ambitions, more and more universities are following its lead and that of Nottingham in building overseas campuses.

Seventh, and this is the key reason that internationalisation will not disappear, it is an intrinsic part of higher education and it is fundamentally a long game. You don’t build a branch campus overnight and it is a huge long term commitment. Not quite the same as a 10 hour MOOC. Demonstrating commitment to a branch campus is hugely important to show that the university is there for the long term and not merely pursuing temporary opportunistic goals. This kind of genuine internationalization is serious, inevitably risky and extremely challenging. But it’s worth it.

Not over yet

Not over yet

So has disruptive innovation displaced internationalization? Will MOOCs kill branch campuses? No. Undoubtedly the challenges in maintaining the quality of campus delivery and the need to blend online and face-to-face will become more sharply focused but the future of higher education remains most firmly international.

The narrative around disruptive innovation is very short termist, its evangelists preach the language of overnight revolution, of avalanches and tsunami. Seductive as this hype might be from those who think that the physical campus is sure to die, they are profoundly mistaken. There will remain a fundamental place for the campus in the high quality higher education experience for many years to come. Steady long term pursuit of international development remains sound strategy. Investment, partnership, relationship building, putting down roots, long term commitment, shared learning, indeed all of the things that run counter to the disruptive innovation discourse, are at the heart of internationalization.

Internationalisation of higher education may have been displaced by MOOCs in the headlines but it is still very much at the heart of strategy of leading universities. It is therefore perhaps a bit early to be writing off internationalization of HE and branch campus developments.

The Imperfect University: Free Information?

Freedom of Information costs. But does anyone really benefit?

TIU

“You idiot. You naive, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop. There is really no description of stupidity, no matter how vivid, that is adequate. I quake at the imbecility of it.”

These are the words Tony Blair addresses to himself in his memoirs while reflecting on his government’s introduction of the Freedom of Information Act as noted in this BBC report.

Last year Times Higher Education ran a story suggesting that the average cost of FoI compliance equals £121 per request:

A study into the costs of answering Freedom of Information enquiries suggests that less than £10 million was spent across the sector last year.

When the House of Commons Justice Committee called for evidence on the effectiveness of the FoI Act, 23 universities submitted evidence, of which 18 complained about the cost burden, among other concerns.

But Jisc, the UK’s expert body on information and digital technology in higher education, tracked 36 requests in seven institutions and found that the average cost, including staff time, of answering an FoI request was £121.

According to Universities UK, higher education institutions received on average 10.1 requests a month in 2011. This equates to an average annual cost of £14,665, which across the sector’s 155 institutions adds up to £2.3 million a year.

I have to say this looks to be something of an underestimate. I asked my colleague in the University’s Governance team which deals with FoI for data for the past couple of years. The data and some examples of requests is set out below. Before we get there though you might wish to refresh your memory with a glance at the ICO guidance – it is 10 page (yes, 10 pages) definition document of what is expected to be published by universities and colleges and covers everything from staff expenses to tender procedures to CCTV locations.

logoDuring the period from 1st January 2011 to December 2012, the University of Nottingham responded to 370 Freedom of Information requests. In 24% of cases, requests resulted in non-disclosure either because the University applied an exemption successfully, defended a position of ‘over the appropriate time limit’ or the information was not held. 27% of requests received a partial disclosure of information. 49% of requests resulted in the requester being entitled to all of the information requested. Whilst we remain ‘purpose blind’ it is self-evident that the majority of requesters continue to be looking for material for journalistic purposes.

Of the 182 (49%) of requests with full responses requests were themed as follows:

Statistics  88
Supplier and contract details  35
Financial figures  25
Policies 21
Communication 2; a total of 7 emails and 1
letter were disclosed
University structure 6
Role profiles 2
Recruitment timeline 1
Research grants 1
Vice-Chancellor’s external roles 1

Supplier and contract details
We receive a large number of requests asking for details of contract agreements in place. In the main these are from competitors. Whilst these requests are an inconvenience there is no applicable exemption to this information as the ICO have made it clear that they do not consider such information commercially sensitive. The data is readily to
hand therefore significant management time is not accrued.
Financial figures
The majority of requests under this category concern library fines, IT costs, legal fees and expenses. We have received individual requests on a small number of issues including costs of artwork, car parking fees, accommodation fees and funding. This information was not considered commercially sensitive and was therefore released to the requestors.
Applied Exemptions
The most common exemption applied, particularly under partially disclosed requests, is personal data. In the main these requests concerned statistics which were so detailed and/or sensitive that disclosing the information would risk unreasonable identification of individuals.

The following exemptions have been applied, either to whole requests or partially:

Commercial interests 10
Personal Data 62
Information already published 18
Information not held 13
Legal professional privilege 1
National security 4
Intended for future publication 2
Vexatious 4

Some of those specific requests over this two year period:

  • Statistics for disciplinary actions taken against students 2010 – present
  • Statistics for Welsh domicile students
  • Student parking fines
  • University investments
  • Server Hardware Maintenance and Software Licensing Contracts
  • the number of UG Taught and PG programmes 12/13 and 11/12 that did not enrol any students
  • Number of students employed in University catering and library departments
  • Amount paid out in hardship funds over last 3 years
  • University Employee Statistics
  • FOI

  • Statistics for research staff recruitment
  • Information and statistics on student bursaries
  • Information on Microscopes Tender
  • Internet traffic
  • Statistics on parking fines issued
  • Statistics for Physics applicants
  • Information and figures relating to Common Purpose
  • Payments from the Pharmaceutical Industry
  • Statistics on changing employment patterns in the public sector
  • Information on admissions cycle for A100 Medicine Course
  • Information on English classes, student figures and fee income
  • Information on research sabbaticals
  • Information on PhD qualifications of staff
  • Information relating to the University’s parking contract
  • Statistics for students failing first year exams
  • Statistics on student housing
  • Information and statistics on student bursaries
  • Information relating to clinical trials
  • Information on Mobile Phone Contracts

Is it worth it? I am dubious. Essentially we spend a great deal of time and effort and public money responding to this stuff and I struggle to see the benefit for anyone, including the requestors. This list also doesn’t include my personal favourite of all dumb FOI requests received (it was before 2011): a request for data on reported hauntings in university buildings. Not quite as bad as the Leicester City Council zombie attack readiness request but still pretty daft. And no matter how silly or pointless such requests may be we have to treat them all equally seriously.

Back to Blair. He claims that FoI is not used, for the most part, by “the people”, but by journalists. His view is that “For political leaders, it’s like saying to someone who is hitting you over the head with a stick, ‘Hey, try this instead’, and handing them a mallet.” It sometimes feels a bit like that in universities too.

(With thanks to Sam Potter for providing the University of Nottingham material included here.)

The Imperfect University: the first chapter

Because universities are difficult, but worth it

This year there have been a dozen posts in the Imperfect University series. Covering leadership, staff mobility, regulation, governance in Scotland and Virginia, not so revolutionary online provision, the CDBU and more regulation, there was I hope something of interest for many in here somewhere.

The Imperfect University

An introduction to the series

Who should lead universities?

What kind of people do universities need as leaders – is appointing a top academic enough?

More and more regulation

Despite the rhetoric we always seem to end up with additional rather than reduced regulation in higher education.

Reviewing higher education in Scotland

Comments on a recent review of university governance in Scotland.

Do we need a level playing field?

Some discussion on this frequently used argument.

Massive Open Online Confusion?

On why Massive Open Online Courses aren’t perhaps as revolutionary as is claimed by some.

Governance Challenges at the University of Virginia

On the removal of the President at the University of Virginia. Messy.

The Cult of Efficiency

A look at a book from 1962, Education and the Cult of Efficiency, which offers a salutary warning about the hazards of imposing inappropriate models in education.

Graduation – a bit London 2012?

London 2012 crowd

London 2012 crowd


A comparison between graduation events and the feel good Olympics. With other observations about graduation.

Mobility Matters

Developing and moving professional services staff.

First for the chop

Why there really aren’t too many administrators in universities. Honest.

How not to defend higher education

Commentary on the launch of the Council for the Defence of British Universities.

More to follow in 2013.

The Imperfect University: the year to date

Because universities are difficult, but worth it

With the latest post, on why administrators really do matter in universities,  we are now up to a total of 11 pieces to date in the Imperfect University series. Covering leadership, staff mobility, regulation, governance in Scotland and Virginia, not so revolutionary online provision, the cult of efficiency and more regulation I hope there is something for everyone in here. Anyway, do let me know what you think – here are all of the posts for reference:

The Imperfect University

An introduction to the series

Who should lead universities?

What kind of people do universities need as leaders – is appointing a top academic enough?

More and more regulation

Despite the rhetoric we always seem to end up with additional rather than reduced regulation in higher education.

Reviewing higher education in Scotland

Comments on a recent review of university governance in Scotland.

Do we need a level playing field?

Some discussion on this frequently used argument.

Massive Open Online Confusion?

On why Massive Open Online Courses aren’t perhaps as revolutionary as is claimed by some.

Governance Challenges at the University of Virginia

On the removal of the President at the University of Virginia. Messy.

The Cult of Efficiency

A look at a book from 1962, Education and the Cult of Efficiency, which offers a salutary warning about the hazards of imposing inappropriate models in education.

Graduation – a bit London 2012?

A comparison between graduation events and the feel good Olympics. With other observations about graduation.

Mobility Matters

Developing and moving professional services staff.

First for the chop

Why there really aren’t too many administrators in universities. Honest

More to follow in due course.

The Imperfect University: First for the chop

The Imperfect University: Some people really don’t think much of administrators

Last year I wrote a piece for Times Higher Education on the problem with the term “back office” and the often casual, unthinking use of it in order to identify a large group of staff who play a key role in the effective running of universities but who are the first to be identified for removal or outsourcing in financially challenging times. But what do we mean by the back office?

In a university context, it is generally taken to mean those staff who are neither engaged in teaching or research nor involved in face-to-face delivery of services to students. So they might be, for example, working in IT, human resources, finance or student records. Or they might be the people who maintain the grounds, administer research grants or edit the website.
Too often, their somewhat anonymous roles mean that they are treated as third-class citizens in the university context. Because they are out of sight and largely out of mind, most people really don’t know what they do; as a consequence, it becomes much easier for others to write them off and offer them up as the first to be sacrificed when cuts have to be made. Back-office staff do not have an obvious income line and can easily be regarded as expendable. The attitude is resonant of the Victorian view of those “below stairs”. This perception (or lack of perception) is unhelpful, and not terribly good for morale – particularly among those who are so casually dismissed as being “just back office”.

Two recent reports offer a striking example of this. The first is an Ernst & Young report on the “University of the Future” which has found that the current public university model in Australia will prove unviable “in all but a few cases”.

A story in The Australian quotes the report’s author:

“There’s not a single Australian university that can survive to 2025 with its current business model,” says report author Justin Bokor, executive director in Ernst & Young’s education division.

“We’ve seen fundamental structural changes to industries including media, retail and entertainment in recent years – higher education is next.”

The study compared ratios of support staff to academic staff across a selection of 15 institutions and found that 14 out of 15 had more support staff than academic staff. Four of the 15 universities have 50 per cent or more support staff than academic staff, and more than half have at least 20 per cent more support staff.

The report warned that this ratio “will have to change”.

The report, which can be found here, doesn’t give any details on the definition of “support staff”. However, I would guess that it is a sum of all staff who are not academics (the definition of academics can often be unclear too). I must admit though that I’m not surprised that there are more support staff than academics in most institutions simply because of the sheer scale of university operations. I suspect that the variations are largely down to how staff are counted and categorized and differences in physical and organizational structures.

Despite this definitional imprecision, the report’s author is confident in asserting that universities need to cut:

Organisations in other knowledge-based industries, such as professional services firms, typically operate with ratios of support staff to front-line staff of 0.3 to 0.5. That is, 2-3 times as many front-line staff as support staff. Universities may not reach these ratios in 10-15 years, but given the ‘hot breath’ of market forces and declining government funding, education institutions are unlikely to survive with ratios of 1.3, 1.4, 1.5 and beyond.

Leaving aside the fact that many professional staff, for example those involved in student recruitment, careers work, counseling, financial advice, academic support, security and library operations are unequivocally front-line, the idea that the other staff who help the institution function and who support academic staff in their teaching and research are merely unnecessary overheads, ripe for cutting back, is just not credible.

Then from the US we have another report, quoted in the Chronicle. This report, produced by a pair of economists, has identified the ideal ratio of academic staff to administrators needed for universities to run most effectively. It is 3:1 and therefore makes the Ernst and Young proposition look decidedly half-hearted. However, as the article acknowledges, the definitional problems are far from insignificant:

The numbers are fuzzy and inconsistent because universities report their own data. Different institutions categorize jobs differently, and the ways they choose to count positions that blend teaching and administrative duties further complicate the data. When researchers talk about “administrators,” they can never be sure exactly which employees they are including. Sometimes colleges count librarians, for example, as administrators, and sometimes they do not.

“Look! If I just cross all these people out then we can employ an extra professor!”

Even in the UK, where there is fairly robust collection of staff data by HESA, definitional problems remain. As this earlier post noted there is significant scope for misinterpreting staff data and overstating the growth of the number of managers versus the number of academics working in universities.

These matters are exacerbated in the US for the reasons above and the comments below the piece give an indication of some of the major holes in the economists’ proposition. Nevertheless, the Chronicle finds some willing to support the proposal for an ideal ratio:

Some advocates of increasing the proportion of faculty at universities say they support the researchers’ goal of setting a three-to-one ratio of faculty to administrators.
Benjamin Ginsberg, a professor of political science at the Johns Hopkins University and author of The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters (Oxford University Press, 2011), has argued that universities would be better off with fewer administrators, people he calls “deanlets.”
The three-to-one ratio “makes a lot of sense,” Mr. Ginsberg said, because it would shift the staff balance in universities. “If an administrator disappeared, no one would notice for a year or two,” he said. “They would assume they were all on retreat, whereas a missing professor is noticed right away.”
Richard Vedder, director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity and a professor of economics at Ohio University, said shifting the balance back toward faculty is key to keeping universities’ missions focused on teaching, as opposed to becoming too focused on other activities, like business development or sustainability efforts.
“We need to get back to basics,” said Mr. Vedder. The basics are “teaching and research,” he said, “and we need to incentivize leaders of the universities to get rid of anything that’s outside of that.”

Administrative staff – not unnecessary overheads

This is just ridiculous rhetoric and really we should just discount it. However, such views are, unfortunately, not that uncommon and do have to be challenged.

In order for the academic staff to deliver on their core responsibilities for teaching and research it is essential that all the services they and the university need are delivered efficiently and effectively. There is not much point in hiring a world-leading scholar if she has to do her all her own photocopying, spend a day a week on the ‘phone trying to sort out tax issues or cut the grass outside the office every month because there aren’t any other staff to do this work. These services are required and staff are needed to do this work to ensure academics are not unnecessarily distracted from their primary duties.

Although provision of such services is not in itself sufficient for institutional success, it is hugely important for creating and sustaining an environment where the best-quality teaching and research can be delivered. If a university chooses to dispense with the professional staff who deliver these services in order to pursue a mythical ratio then it might find it’s rather hard to hold on to those outstanding academics for very long.

Most recently there is a piece in THE reporting on the launch of the “Council for the Defence of British Universities” which notes that

The council’s initial 65-strong membership includes 16 peers from the House of Lords plus a number of prominent figures from outside the academy, including the broadcaster Lord Bragg of Wigton and Alan Bennett. Its manifesto calls for universities to be free to pursue research “without regard to its immediate economic benefit” and stresses “the principle of institutional autonomy”. It adds that the “function of managerial and administrative staff is to facilitate teaching and research”.

Now whilst I do of course agree that this is a fundamental part of administrators’ roles and it is splendid that the great and the good do accept that administrators exist, there is something here in the tone of this comment that makes me think that some might take this to be that we should be “seen and not heard”. I do hope not.

The Imperfect University: Mobility Matters

The Imperfect University: Staff getting on their bikes

One of the things professional services colleagues sometimes complain about is that whereas  academic staff can be promoted in post – and indeed can progress all the way from lecturer to professor in the same academic department – they can’t. Instead to advance their careers administrators have to move – either elsewhere in the institution or to another university. This is often presented as a problem whereas I have to say I think it is much more of a positive position. Whilst there is something to be said for having people in post in administrative roles in central or academic departments who know their jobs inside out, who carry a sense of the institutional history and provide the continuity between rotating professors as heads of department, there is also a difficulty in such longevity in one particular role. Essentially the challenge is this – many intelligent, creative and able administrators, no matter how committed to a particular department or institution, can, unless they are given new challenges and fresh stimulus in their job, sometimes become dull, stale and bored. They may, no matter how able, become less productive over time as tedium and routine replaces challenge and excitement. I should stress that this is not always the case and is challenged as a proposition by some of my colleagues.

In my view the way to address this issue is not to argue for the opportunity for professional services staff to be promoted in role (although if their job does change radically then the regarding opportunity will exist) – this is the wrong way of approaching the matter. Rather there should be the possibility of moving staff regularly to new roles in different parts of the university to provide them with new challenge and stimulus. Ultimately this not only gives people more satisfaction in their work and makes them more productive but, because it broadens their experience too they become more employable in other roles and stand a better chance of securing a more senior role in their current or another institution.

Times Higher Education recently carried a piece on the development of university leaders and noted the success of the University of Warwick in this regard. One of those things for which the administration at Warwick under Mike Shattock and subsequently was famed was the propensity for moving staff around to ensure they gained new experiences and enjoyed exposure to new ideas and new work opportunities to keep them interested, stimulated and challenged. This was my experience at the University (I had seven different jobs in just under nine years at Warwick) and I found the experience hugely beneficial.

This is hard to do though. Given the structures in universities which often involve significant devolution to academic units and therefore means that administrative staff can be located in dispersed teams at Department, School or Faculty level the managed redeployment or rotation of staff can be extremely difficult to organise. Professional specialisms – in HR, Finance, IT, and Estates – make such rotation even harder although I would suggest that the previous decline of the generalist administrator has been reversed and it is perfectly possible for specialists to transfer into and succeed at more generalist roles (although rarely vice versa).

The Higher Education sector in the UK employs over 380,000 staff of whom 200,000 work in non-academic roles and professional services (HESA 2010/11 data). Whilst the career route is well defined and understood for academic staff (albeit an extremely tough profession to enter), entry to HE administration is less well defined. There is a national pay spine but grades for administrative staff vary across the sector. The entry level for graduates is generally understood but no common graduate scheme exists, unlike in the NHS which has had a well-developed national scheme for prospective NHS managers operating successfully for many years. A small number of institutions have operated local graduate trainee programmes down the years but they have not really taken off in any significant way.

In the absence of any national graduate entry programme and the challenges with managed rotation one alternative approach is to introduce a variety of work opportunities at the beginning of administrators’ careers. As well as providing a clear opportunity for entry to a career in higher education administration this was part of our motivation at the University of Nottingham for introducing our own local Graduate Trainee Programme in 2008.

An extract from the last advertisement for the programme gives a flavour of the opportunity:

This Graduate Trainee Programme offers an invaluable opportunity to prepare talented, hard-working and enthusiastic Nottingham graduates for a management role within this stimulating setting.

The programme is aimed exclusively at University of Nottingham graduates interested in developing a career in university administration. It offers an invaluable insight into this dynamic management activity whilst developing an understanding of:

  • markets
  • income streams
  • resource allocation processes
  • client bases including students, funding bodies, commercial partners and employers.

The programme offers four trainees the opportunity to experience key components of university operation and build an understanding of the institution’s strategy.

Over 12 months the trainees undertake a planned rotation of placements in different areas of the University, reporting to senior staff. Placements will be across Professional Services and Schools, and trainees may have the opportunity to work at one of the University’s international campuses in Malaysia or China.

Placement areas may include:

  • Academic Services
  • Business Engagement and Innovation Services
  • Research and Graduate Services
  • Human Resources
  • Finance and Business Services
  • Student Operations
  • Governance
  • Marketing
  • Admissions

Successful trainees will gain the transferable skills necessary to move on to positions within the University with a clear understanding of how a large university operates. Outstanding performance on the programme may facilitate a longer term opportunity at Nottingham.

This kind of programme gives trainees a wide range of experiences early, sets them up well, gives them a rounded view of university operations both from departmental and central perspectives. It also makes them extremely employable and almost all of the graduates of the Nottingham GTP have gone onto subsequent employment within the University or at other HE institutions.

Having run successfully for four years at Nottingham this model has now been adapted and adopted as a pilot for a national scheme, initially involving eight universities (including Nottingham) and co-ordinated by AHUA (the national association for Registrars and other heads of university administration). Further details of this year’s recruitment can be found here.

The UK higher education sector really does need such a scheme and this programme will develop a cadre of senior managers for the future who have not only undertaken a variety of roles in their home institution but have also had a range of experiences in another university too. In addition, they will benefit from a structured professional development programme under the AUA CPD framework.

Excellent universities need outstanding managers who have broad experience and are able to take an institutional view where necessary. Mobility and dynamism of staff is key to achieving this and is in interest of both professional staff and their institutions. The nascent national Graduate Trainee Programme which is developing under the auspices of AHUA offers the prospect of achieving this in a widespread and sustainable way which can only be beneficial for universities in the UK.

 

The Imperfect University: the story so far

Because universities are difficult, but worth it

I’ve managed six posts to date in the Imperfect University series to date. Covering leadership, regulation, governance in Scotland, not so revolutionary online provision and more regulation I hope I’ve managed to offer something a bit more substantial here. Anyway, I’d be grateful for any feedback on the series and in the meantime thought it would be helpful to provide links to all six pieces here for your convenience:

The Imperfect University

An introduction to the series

Who should lead universities?

What kind of people do universities need as leaders – is appointing a top academic enough?

More and more regulation

Despite the rhetoric we always seem to end up with additional rather than reduced regulation in higher education.

Reviewing higher education in Scotland

Comments on a recent review of university governance in Scotland. Not pretty.

Do we need a level playing field?

Some discussion on this frequently used argument.

Massive Open Online Confusion?

On why Massive Open Online Courses aren’t perhaps as revolutionary as is claimed by some.

Plenty more in the pipeline.

The Imperfect University

Because universities are difficult, but worth it

I’ve been doing this Registrarism blog for well over four years now and have become increasingly concerned that any vaguely original content tends to be somewhat crowded out by brief commentary on topical (or, more likely, slightly dated) higher education matters. I feel therefore that I need to offer up a bit more of the former. This is also the advice from from my bespoke focus group (Top Management Programme 17 fellow travellers) that I should use the blog for something useful and not just trivia (where ‘True Crime on Campus’ is my own little lolcats). So here we go.

It seems to be the nature of the registrarial business that you become accustomed to writing briefer pieces rather than more substantive work. I have for some time toyed with an idea for a book on university management (“all you never needed to know about HE management” – Times Higher Education, “a bit dull” – The Guardian) but now fear that it really is just too much of a long haul. So I am going for the episodic. I could claim that am going to use the inherent virtues of the blog format in order to deliver something special and different and uniquely attuned to the contemporary university environment but the truth is I have neither the time nor the inclination to do a proper book. Also this ensures that matters will be thrillingly topical at all times too. Or perhaps not.

So, building on the foundations of those who’ve been there before I suspect at some point we will have a look at Newman (not Paul) and Barnett on the conception of the university. And, from a different angle, Shattock on how it all works – what university management is really all about. But perhaps more than any other the biggest influence here is likely to be Cornford whose Microcosmographica Academia really is the benchmark on this topic and the yardstick against which everything else must be judged. And I already know I will fall short – not so much standing on the shoulders of giants as biting, annoyingly, at their ankles (I bet that’s been said before but I can’t remember where).

So, to summarise the case: universities are difficult places to work in, hard to get into, to study in, to navigate through (physically and virtually) strange, perverse, slow moving sometimes but incredibly dynamic at times too. But although difficult and challenging in all sorts of ways, they are also extraordinary in what they do. For example in developing graduates, producing outstanding research, generating new knowledge and capital, providing resources to communities, being a source of societal critique. What I want to do in this series is highlight the difficulties and the good stuff but also all the ways in which we can, those of us who work in or take an interest in higher education, make our way in this extraordinary environment. Some of these pieces will inevitably involve reworking some previous posts but this will hopefully be in an interesting and different way.

Universities aren’t perfect and working in one can be extremely challenging and frustrating but also hugely exciting and stimulating. I’ve only ever worked in higher education, in four quite different institutions but all special and marvellous in their own way. Part of the wonder of it is being surrounded by colleagues and students, many if not most of whom are smarter than you, who are always challenging and questioning everything you do and the way you do it.

So, I want this series to be something of a primer on the imperfections of university life. Perhaps this is overly ambitious and maybe it will never really get that far but I do want to offer some observations about what I think works and what doesn’t and what some of the important issues are in universities today. Universities are full of imperfections and university management doesn’t need to be perfect to help sustain the conditions for success. Part of the answer is to tackle the most important things rather than being distracted by the trivia, to seek improvement where possible but acknowledge you can’t do everything. One of the really hard bits though is working out which are the most important things to do now which will make a difference tomorrow.

Universities are, arguably, among the most forward looking institutions in society, and more concerned with the long term than any other (secular) bodies. They should be prized, revered and lauded and, despite the fact that much of what appears and will follow here may seem to focus on the challenges, difficulties and imperfections, the underlying sentiment of this series will be one of extraordinary high regard for higher education, everyone who works in universities and all of their achievements. But complacency kills. Not necessarily immediately, but eventually. And so the Imperfect University series, the episodic antidote to complacency, starts here.

(The first piece in the series, on leadership, will appear next week.)