Professional managers – the hunt for added value


By Dr Andy Earwaker

In “Managing Successful Universities” (2nd Ed 2010) Michael Shattock observes that:

“A besetting weakness in many universities is to regard non-academic appointments not simply as secondary to academic appointments but as of having no material significance to the success of the institution..(but)… simply pairs of hands to provide the necessary support to the academic community”.

It is sad, but perhaps not surprising, that this perception of professional managers and administrators should be perpetuated and given new credence by Laurie Taylor’s recent article in the Times Higher (28/5-3/6 “Keeping the Peace”). In invoking the archaic language of master and servant the article attempts to hark back to a “golden age” of academia unsullied by the commercial and competitive realities of the modern world. In so doing it inadvertently lends support to Adam Smith’s famous description of an English University as “…a sanctuary in which exploded systems and absolute prejudices find shelter and protection…”.

Laurie has, in his inimitable and possibly tongue-in-cheek way, kick-started a timely debate about the added value which this group of staff contribute to HEIs and, for that reason alone, his comments should be welcomed.

Historically, there have been a number of positional impediments to engagement in a meaningful discourse about the value of non -teaching staff in HEIs. These include:

  1. The issue of nomenclature – for example, the term “non-academic” is regarded by some as pejorative whilst other generic descriptions are equally contentious. Australian authors, such as Sebalj, Holbrook and Bourke 2012, have explored this aspect in some detail.
  2. A lack of homogeneity – roles have evolved organically, and locally, to meet changing organisational needs which makes it difficult to make direct comparisons or generalisations.
  3. The rise of a New Public Management ethos and an increasing tendency to blend managerial and academic work which has blurred traditional boundaries.
  4. The persistent legacy of staff “without an academic contract” being “invisible” or a “forgotten workforce” (Szekeres 2004).

The first hurdle to overcome therefore is that of identity and definition. This has been assisted by the changing nature of managerial work over the last few years which has provided a lens through which it is possible for us to isolate and examine a particular element of the “non-academic” appointments which Shattock refers to. Thus the shifting nature of professional service roles from transactional to strategic activity has been noted by HEFCE (2010) whilst Whitchurch (2006, 2008) has pointed to the existence of a “third space” in HEIs populated by hybrid or cross-boundary professionals performing key translational and interpretative functions. Her more recent work has described the emergence of “unbounded” professionals able to work across organisational structures and operate in conditions of ambiguity and complexity.

It is perhaps the integrative way of working and associated behaviours as much as the task itself that mark the rise and contribution of the Professional Manager in HEIs. This can be evidenced by the core skills cited in some recent national job advertisements. For example – “the ability to be creative and encourage different approaches and behaviours in others; the ability to act effectively and persuasively as an external advocate ; the ability to make decisions in a complex and shifting environment; leading and directing productive, multi-skilled, cross-functional project teams, including staff from diverse areas of the organisation and at different levels of seniority”. It is noticeable, of course, that the passive state of “service” is generally conspicuous by its absence amongst the list of essential, let alone desirable, characteristics or skills. This applies equally to more operational roles where flexibility, interpretation and initiative are common requirements.

Precisely how this new breed of HEI professionals add value is probably best articulated through the deconstruction of practical examples. To that end, the Professional Managers’ Steering Committee of the Chartered ABS has organised its annual conference to be held at Regent’s University in London on 3rd/4th December around this theme of added value. A team of expert speakers will draw on their own experiences in order to produce the necessary evidence.

If you would like to participate in this debate then please do book a place at the conference and/or contribute a thought piece to the CABS website. The Committee would be really interested to hear from you.


Dr Andy Earwaker
Chair, Professional Managers’ Steering Committee, Chartered Association of Business Schools and Faculty Manager, Portsmouth Business School