In the modern organisational landscape, universities have stood the test of time yet a quaint perception of tranquillity often colours the expectations of those with limited exposure to the sector. They imagine ivory towers populated with academics so enthralled by the pursuit of new knowledge that they are impervious to pleas from the wider public to avoid corduroy and sandal/sock combinations. Those inside the sector see a different reality where our universities face a dynamic, challenging and globally competitive landscape of rankings and endless measurement. Despite this, universities still tend to describe those tasks that relate to the day to day running of our organisations as “admin” with suitable connotations of Civil Service circa 1950. Vice Chancellors may talk in terms of leadership, Lord Adonis might rail against the growing ranks of “senior management” but early career academics will most likely be invited to take on an admin role. Here’s how to make the best of the opportunity.
See it as an opportunity
As an academic you’ll most likely be aware that someone is responsible for the allocation of your duties each year. These duties are typically categorised under the headings of teaching, research and administration. Whether it is your Head of Department, Subject Leader, Head of Institute or some other title, someone will have to find a “volunteer” to take on a plethora of admin duties such as course leader, year group head, programme director and the like. Outbreaks of rampant volunteering are rare when trying to find colleagues willing to take on such tasks and therein lies the opportunity. The stark reality is that your university needs someone to fulfil these roles in order to function. When it comes to annual review conversations and eventually to promotion, your CV will look infinitely more rounded if it demonstrates that you have the capacity to get things done. Yes, your teaching and research need to be good, but unless they are absolutely stellar you’ll be better placed to advance your career if you can point to some admin experience. That aside, you’ll have marked yourself out from the crowd by the simple act of volunteering.
Clarify what’s expected of you
Admin roles vary in size, shape and complexity. Don’t just say yes without any discussion. Ask what the role entails. Is there a job description? Can you speak to the current incumbent? What would “good” look like? And, how long would you be expected to hold to the role? These questions should form the basis of a constructive discussion with whoever is asking you to take on the role. Done badly this could be heard as a set of ransom demands by your line manager. Done well however, these questions could help shape your own career development. Be open about what you are hoping to achieve from the role and get your colleague(s) to be clear about their expectations. If possible, ask to shadow someone who is doing the role or find a mentor who is regarded as having been a success in the role.
Chronicle your achievements
If you buy the advice that volunteering for admin roles will help you as you move forward in your career, then it follows logically that you should keep records before, during and after your tenure in such roles. Capture some metrics as you come into the role, how many of, how long things take, how people rate the service, etc. The specifics will depend on the role but you and others will have a sense of what the key measures are (if only because you’ll have been regaled with tales of woe that reflect when and where things have gone wrong). Set yourself the task of improving some of these measures and keep notes of what you’ve changed, who you’ve worked with to effect improvements and what evidence there is that you have delivered. In the pre-internet era, one of my first administrative roles was that of Exams Officer. I simplified the process that I inherited because it involved colleagues completing over 20 different forms. My radical innovation was to use a single form that logged who approved what, and when. Hardly ground breaking, but keeping copies of the old and the new forms allowed me to demonstrate the improvement and critically, my role in it. Simply holding a role title won’t be enough come annual review time, promotion panels or interviews. You’ll be asked what you achieved. Better yet, if the performance measures drop off after you demit office, note these too such that you can present an heroic narrative that all was well when you were in charge.
Use the chance to learn how your industry works
Your university will likely have a turnover in excess of some Premier League football teams. In that multi-million pound environment, money doesn’t just appear any more than Gold TEF awards or upper quartile rankings in the Times Higher simply happen. Use your involvement in the day to day running of the organisation to help build your understanding of how your industry works. Admin roles can offer you a first chance to move beyond your own discipline to see how other parts of your own university operate and even how other universities operate. Speak to the people you meet, ask questions of your external examiners, ask your research colleagues how they execute the tasks for which you’ve been given responsibility in their institutions. It may be that you find that you have a talent for organizing. If so, you’ll feel yourself being sucked into that specific sub-set of academic life that leads inexorably toward greater and greater administrative responsibility. Vice Chancellors have to start somewhere after all. You might equally have a complete aversion to anything that takes you away from the academic purity of learning and advancing human knowledge. Even if that is the case, you’ll be better able to interface with those who do run your university if you understand your organisation as an organisation. Even better, take the time to learn the language, syntax and grammar of the administrative conversations that influence your working environment.
Make a difference
Take a moment and realise that whatever the admin role and however low-status it may appear to you or to your colleagues, it is probably central to continued functioning of your university. If you think something is either inefficient or fundamentally wrong with the processes for which you now find yourself responsible, do something about it. Of course, you could shrug your shoulders and bemoan your misfortune for having taken on this particular admin role at this particular time. Ultimately though, universities don’t do things, people do. Don’t expect some faceless “other” whether it is the faculty, the university centre, IT or even senior management to sort everything. Instead, recognise that you might be best placed to make a difference. Yes, your computer systems may still operate on punch cards. Yes, the governance structure may require you to get 7 people to sign off on the most basic decisions. Yes, you wouldn’t tolerate this level of hassle from your bank or insurance provider and you can’t believe there’s still a role for coloured carbon copy paper. But, the more impoverished the starting point, the easier it should be to make things even a little better. Make an active choice to see yourself as an advocate for better processes, systems, decisions, etc. The alternative casts you as bystander and being passive isn’t good for you, your students or ultimately your university.