University managers and administrators: why we should value and develop them

Dr David Duncan, Registrar and Secretary at the University of York, talks about valuing university managers and administrators.

What’s usually at the top of your agenda as you drink your first cup of coffee in the morning?

As with most jobs, I have to balance short and long term priorities.  There is always a danger that the urgent matters occupy your day and prevent you thinking and acting strategically –especially during the term, when the calendar is dominated by meetings and committees.  So the start of the day finds me working out what I have to achieve before close of play, but also trying to keep the bigger, university-wide issues at the forefront of my mind.

What are your big issues right now?

Internally, we are reviewing our approach to the student experience.  In particular, we are considering how we can build on the excellent work done by University staff and the Students’ Union to enhance students’ employability and promote volunteering and entrepreneurial activities.

I’m also going to be talking about valuing staff in professional, managerial and administrative roles at the AUA Yorkshire and North East Conference on 15 November 2013, which we’re hosting here at University of York.

Are these roles not always given the recognition they deserve?

On the whole, I think the contributions of professional support staff are recognised more now than they ever were.  Partly, this is because academics increasingly appreciate that they can only do their jobs effectively with excellent, highly professional support.  However, there are dangers in increasing professionalism.

Firstly, it is harder to create interesting career paths for support staff than it used to be – you can’t move around from HR, to careers, to planning, to student administration in the way people did thirty years ago.

And secondly, there is a risk that with increasing professionalism comes the silo effect – encouraging staff to work in multi-disciplinary teams and to combine effectively with colleagues with very different skills and experience is becoming more challenging.

Certainly in our University we are paying more attention than ever to career development and succession planning for professional support staff.  We’re also very keen to attract graduates into university management. Too many of them still don’t see it as a valid option despite having spent years in our institutions.

Universities are fantastic places to work – they are communities, and there are endless opportunities not just to make a contribution professionally, but to play an active part in the social, intellectual, cultural and sporting life of the community.  We can and should attract the best and brightest of our graduates to work for us.

Why is this important now?

Universities can gain significant added value from using their professional support staff effectively and giving them scope to develop their talents.  Front-line teaching and research activities can be enhanced immeasurably if the right sort of support is available.

To give you just a few examples, we have talented people right across the University who variously help write grant applications, support inter-institutional collaborations, assist with spin outs and licensing agreements, as well as providing excellent and efficient facilities management, training and support in using virtual learning environments and professional development provision for early career lecturers and researchers.

At the same time, the student experience is to a large extent shaped by support staff. If they come to work every day thinking ‘how can I improve the experience of our students today’, and if they go the extra mile to help and support students, it can make a huge difference.

Many of the most important innovations come from the creativity of professional support staff at all levels. It is vital that they are given the scope to propose changes and the support to make things happen on the ground.

What would be your three take-aways for colleagues reflecting on these challenges?

  1. Focus on the core purposes of the University and what you can do to enhance them.
  2. Don’t become a channel for regulation and bureaucracy.  Rules have to be followed of course, but don’t let them become the be all and end all of your role.
  3. Don’t bring a problem to your line manager or decision-making group without also identifying a solution – or even better, several solutions, ranked according to how good you think they are, and with the advantages and disadvantages of each already set out.

What’s on the horizon for you?

We are very much looking forward to welcoming a new Vice Chancellor to York in January. His arrival is giving us pause for thought.  How do we set out the strengths and weaknesses of this University as clearly as possible?  What do we see as the priorities for the next five years?  And do we have a clear and shared view of how the University should grow and develop over the next five to ten years?  We are debating these points at the moment, and aim to help the VC hit the ground running in the New Year.

Dr David Duncan is Registrar and Secretary at the University of York. He will be speaking at the AUA Yorkshire and North East Conference on 15 November 2013, held at the University of York.

A version of this content also appears on the Guardian higher education management and administration hub.