To survive and thrive in the 21st century VUCA[i] world, tertiary education institutions need to make the most of the capabilities of all staff to address current and future needs of our society.

On the eve of the 7th Annual ATEM / Campus Morning Mail Best Practice Awards in Tertiary Education Management, it is opportune to reflect on how tertiary education managers contribute to the core functions – the raison d’être – of our institutions.

Firstly, it is important to clarify who are “tertiary education managers”. By using the term “tertiary education” we are being inclusive of all institutions engaged in post-secondary education, be they public or private, offering higher education or vocational education.

Likewise, we are being inclusive of managers regardless of whether they have academic appointments or are employed as professional services staff.

Rather than dwell on any perceived divide, the focus must be on how our institutions support the needs of our society through tertiary education. Indeed, as Davis and Graham[ii] recently commented, “it is useful to think of this work [tertiary education management] as undertaken to a greater or lesser extent by all who work in the sector – rather than perpetuate any us and them divide”.

Central to all institutions of tertiary education are teaching and learning. While universities also include research and service (to the wider community) in their missions, research activity is not yet a feature in vocational education and training – notwithstanding the work of the National Centre for Vocational Education Research.

It is timely to remind ourselves that the core agenda for all post-secondary institutions, according to Fullan and Scott[iii], is to produce graduates with “knowledge-based practical reasoning and judgement” (p. 54), and that teaching and learning is central to this mission. It takes a whole of institution approach to engage and retain students in productive learning through to completion.

So how do tertiary education managers contribute to this agenda?

As noted above, tertiary education managers may have an academic or a professional services appointment. Those with academic appointments will typically be academic managers – that is, they will have roles as deans, heads of schools or departments, or their deputies. While rather more remote from students than are teaching staff, these managers are, nevertheless, closely associated with teaching activities.

Those with professional services roles cover a much broader remit: while some work with academic colleagues within faculties, others work across diverse departments, such as finance or human resources, and might appear to have little direct engagement with students or their success.

Yet studies by Graham[iv], and later by Graham with UK colleague Regan[v], suggest that professional staff do contribute to positive student outcomes, most significantly in terms of ensuring that staff behaviours, and institutional environments and processes are welcoming and efficient.

Such processes include enrolment and general administration activities, course selection and timetabling, as well as provision of advice that is timely and appropriate, be it in-person or online.

Other managers, such as those in facilities management, might have little direct contact with students; however, the work of these managers is essential to ensuring that their institution’s environment and infrastructure is welcoming and meets the needs of students.

More recently, Roberts[vi] proposed a five-stage model of the student lifecycle to make visible the work of professional staff that has the most impact on student retention and success.

Through analysis and synthesis of literature, Roberts mapped five student success factors – culture, student preparation, personal wellbeing, academic engagement and social integration – across the five-stage student lifecycle by providing examples of key student services staff activities
that contribute to student retention and success.

Although focusing on, and making visible, the work of professional staff, Roberts notes that “a holistic institution-wide commitment to successful student outcomes necessitates the coming together of academic and professional staff in support of the student learning journey” (p. 151).

One way to better understand the motivations underlying staff behaviours and performance that support the student learning journey, is to consider this work through the lens of Self-Determination Theory (SDT). The key premise of the SDT is that attention to and experience of autonomy, competence and relatedness fosters volition, intrinsic motivation and engagement, resulting in enhanced performance, persistence and creativity[vii].

Put more popularly by Daniel Pink[viii], autonomy, mastery and purpose underpin motivation. Academics have long leveraged academic autonomy, their own discipline mastery and the purpose of creating and disseminating knowledge as a driver for self-motivation. More recently Regan and Graham[ix] found this framework could also be applied for professional services staff.

Which brings us back to the ATEM/Campus Morning Mail Best Practice Awards. These awards are open to anyone working in the tertiary education sector. By celebrating best practice, these awards honour mastery and, through public recognition at the annual Tertiary Education Management Conference, this work is acknowledged.

Importantly, the winners of these awards demonstrate volition in “going the extra mile” in tertiary education management.

Congratulations all!


[i] Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous

[ii] Davis, H., & Graham, C. (2018). Navigating a career in tertiary education management in an era of unceasing transformation. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 40(2), 97–106. doi: 10.1080/1360080X.2018.1428932.

[iii] Fullan, M. & Scott, G. 2009, Turnaround leadership for higher education, Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, CA.

[iv] Graham (various 2010, 2012, 2013a, 2013b and 2014).

[v] Graham, C., & Regan, J.-A. (2016). Exploring the Contribution of Professional Staff to Student Outcomes: a comparative study of Australian and UK case studies. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 38(6), 595–609. doi: 10.1080/1360080X

[vi] Roberts, J. (2018). Professional staff contributions to student retention and success in higher education, Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 40(2), 140–153, doi: 10.1080/1360080X.2018.1428409

[vii] Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68–78. doi: 10.1037110003-066X.55.1.68

[viii] Pink, D. H. (2009). Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us. New York : Riverhead Books

[ix] Regan, J.-A., & Graham, C. (2018). A career in professional services: accident, serendipity or something more? Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 40(1), 3–17. Advance online publication 19 Dec 2017. doi: 10.1080/1360080X.2017.1411062


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