By Susannah Marsden

“Nobody I have ever met in 15 years of working in HE ever intended to be a university administrator. Perhaps we should do something to change that…”

When someone from outside the sector asks you what you do for a living, what do you say? I have worked in higher education for 23 years, starting as what was then a course officer through to my current role as Director of Student and Academic Services at City, University of London, and my stock reply to that question all the way along has been “oh, I work at a university”.

Next question is usually – “are you a teacher?” to which my current reply will be (depending on the audience) either, “no, I am a manager” or “no, I run the student services there, it is quite a big job.” Now, neither of these answers are fully accurate in that I am actually a leader as part of City’s executive committee, and my role is far wider than student services.

The challenge I find in these conversations is not that I feel at all shy about talking about my job (previous or current) but is how to say what I do in a way that is meaningful to the other person. What goes on in the non-academic inner workings of a university is not something that is commonly known about, and in the current negative media climate about universities it is perhaps even more difficult to suggest that a substantial un-named profession is operating behind-the-scenes.

Even within our own institutions, we can often be seen as those people who deal with “everything else” that is not delivered by those professional services commonly found in other sectors (for example, marketing, HR, IT, finance), and on bad days sometimes we may just be identified as a significant extra cost, or annoying bureaucrats.

But, we are in fact the professional service that makes universities different to other sectors. We contribute significantly to the success of our students and our institutions, as well as often being the ones managing significant risk. So why is it that our professional identity is so nebulous?

The history of student and academic administration rests in models of departmental secretaries, an academic registrar, hand-written assessment grids and memos. Ask those people at that time what they did, and the answer was probably pretty clear. But that set-up bears little resemblance to the roles and organisational models we now have in place to support a very different higher education scene. And while a much bigger infrastructure has developed in response to this change, it is arguable that this has not gone hand-in-hand with a sector-wide establishment of clear professional identities or career paths for professionals working in this area.

At the Association of University Administrators 2019  annual conference, I co-delivered a session with Hugh Jones (Hugh Jones Consulting) called “Defining our Future Profession”, based on some analysis and research we have been working on during the last 18 months about the current state and status of the profession. We see a gap that needs to be addressed, and we have some ideas about how to take that forward. Our session was designed partly to test out that gap, as well as collaborate with other professionals to shape possible next steps.

The session touched briefly on the historic context of the profession, but more importantly looked at where we were going next. In a context of changing student expectations, a new regulatory environment, increased competition and new workforce expectations (never mind changes to funding, pensions, Brexit or media scrutiny) what does this mean for us as professionals as well as what the sector needs from our profession?

Within the session, we presented some research about what is happening in the sector.

Responses we had received from over 30 academic registrars showed that at an organisational level during the last five years the student and academic administration function has been moving to a more joined-up approach, whether this is a hybrid model or a “centralisation”.

The majority of institutions were engaged in change projects in relation to the student journey with process improvement, enrolment and welcome, student information and communications and student support operations topping the most common areas of change.

Our research also showed us that leaders and managers were seeking changing skill-sets. One notable comment was, “the posts we are recruiting to are increasingly specialist, yet paradoxically we are increasingly looking for skills that are or can be transferrable.”

Others commented on the need for flexibility, ability to move things forward, skilled project managers, data skills and agility …within this full range of ideas, however, one topic stood out. Colleagues want a clear career progression framework.

Change is happening to everyone playing an active role in the HE sector and professionals who are working within the student and education sphere are some of those at the forefront of this change. We are no longer those who deal with “everything else”, we are a valid and vital profession which we need to recognise, identify, grow, develop, evolve and sustain. We are unique.

Susannah Marsden is Director of Student and Academic Services, City, University of London


By Paul Abela

From an ATEM perspective, much of what Susannah is saying resonates highly and is replicated in Australia and New Zealand. There is debate here about shared services models, on centralising and decentralising, on the latest technology to allow the achievement of goals.

The more specialised nature of the work, where position descriptions are increasingly nuanced, is something I commented on last year in an article. The paradox of seeking professional staff needing transferable skills at the same time as specialising we believe is answered by having a deep knowledge of the sector, its history and its purpose.

In Australia, Papua New Guinea and New Zealand, many professional staff seek specific pathway degrees such as the eLAMP program that is provided at no cost to members. This allows movement to the side as well as progressing to the next level and allows progression to further study (grad certs and masters). Having a detailed overview of the sector allows flexibility in career paths. Keeping up to date and trying new roles even for a short period of time assists.

We would also concur with the statement of how important professional staff are to the core work of learning institutions. Carroll Graham’s work (editor of the Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management) ,identified empirically that the value-add of professional staff to the student experience is incontestable.

We are also aware of the need for a career framework. ATEM publishes a capabilities framework. If not somewhat outdated, it nevertheless guides the career minded staff member in the knowledge, skills and attributes needed for carer progression. The ATEM board recently undertook to re-write and modernise this capabilities framework.

It appears clearly that the UK experience as outlined by Susannah is replicated here.

We are really interested to hear from colleagues, so please email us at or Paul Abela at

Paul Abela, is executive director of ATEM


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