by Neil Harris
University administration is a diverse business. It includes registry, human resources, finance, estates, marketing, public relations, conferences and catering, course administration in departments and numerous other activities. Every day there are jobs advertised here on jobs.ac.uk for administrators. What does it take to be successful?
These are demanding roles where some people apply their professional expertise in finance, marketing, human resources and other areas in addition to their administrative skills. Most employees working in an administrative function have to liaise with a large range of people across the campus. Those in human resources, for example, often have responsibility for that function over a group of departments or a particular group of staff - academics, catering, and technicians, for example. People in finance must monitor the budgets and spending of departments for which they are responsible, liaising with those responsible for all spending and buying activities.
Not everyone, however, works in a central function. Departments usually have their own administrators who are involved in course organisation. This involves receiving applications, producing marketing materials. Room allocations and timetable scheduling is essential in order to develop learning materials. Administrators also collate assessments and maintain students' personal files.
Being really interested in higher education and the vast range of people who work within it is a great asset because administrators have to deal with students and staff at all levels. A strong motivation to get involved and make things happen is an important characteristic for those who want to find real job satisfaction and the feeling of achievement in their work.
"Alongside a sound understanding and knowledge of the decision-making processes in their institutions, university administrators need to be able to interpret large amounts of documentation and communicate any relevant issues to colleagues. Many universities are currently delivering management and leadership development programmes for administrators", says Paul Monahan, training manager at Queens University Belfast. Universities are usually excellent when it comes to training their staff to adapt to new situations.
Although there is a vast range of administrative jobs covering many different activities there are some generic skills that are required.
Organisation and planning
Recruiters look for well organised people with a strong attention to detail. Staff need to be prepared to ensure that everything goes to plan and to make administration work like a well-oiled machine. Since universities work on an annual cycle most planning takes place once a year. When that period arises depends on the administrative function but generally it is towards the end of the summer term.
Excellent communicators are definitely required. Not only do administrators liaise with staff at all levels but also with those studying a wide range of subjects, from PhDs to first degree level and sometimes Foundation and Access courses.
Universities usually have students and staff from at least 50 countries. A willingness to understand other people's cultures and deal patiently with those who seek information is another key requirement.
In addition to good verbal English, excellent writing skills are necessary. In most administrative jobs it is essential to write reports. Taking minutes of meetings and contacting people by e-mail in many countries about a range of issues from funding to organising a programme of lectures can be a part of the job. There may be promotional leaflets, course materials, exhibition programmes and prospectuses to be written, proof read and edited. It is not a solitary process. To create such documents it is essential to liaise with everyone involved, including the printers, get all the necessary information and put it together to produce the final version.
Universities, their courses and students, are ever changing and so is the technology that surrounds them. Many administrative jobs include working with databases, adding or changing information. In some roles it is necessary to regularly update the content of web site pages. Proficiency with PowerPoint is often needed if the work includes giving presentations or lectures.
Software and systems are continually being updated, so a willingness to continue training and adapt to novel situations is vital. As it involves working in a learning environment with others who are there primarily for that purpose, a strong desire to continue one's own personal learning, be adaptable and keep up with technological change is a major advantage.
Many roles involve the management and supervision of other staff, often in large and crowded open plan offices. This requires the ability to motivate, to set targets, delegate and monitor progress and achieve results within specified time frames and budgets. Tact and diplomacy plus strong persuasive skills are required. People are motivated when given a task and allowed the freedom to get on with it in their own way.
When working in teams, it is useful to make use of the support of your colleagues, and to be willing to offer support, too. When the chips are down, perhaps due to the absence of a member of staff at a time of high demand, it is a great advantage if you work in a team where everyone is aiming towards a common goal. Knowing the strengths and weaknesses of your colleagues allows you to use their skills to the full and help them out when difficult situations arise. The Myers Briggs Personality Type Inventory and an understanding of Belbin's Team Roles can be valuable tools in this process.
Universities may be seen as not for profit organisations but they are huge businesses with vast numbers of students (the clients) and numerous suppliers. In some administrative work it is important to be commercially aware, to negotiate the best deal and understand the market for a particular product or service you are buying.
In the past, many departments threatened with extinction due to falling student numbers have gone out and actively motivated potential students. Open days, informative literature and a useful web site are all part of the marketing mix.
University employees may not need the commercial skills of a sales force but an awareness of the commercial realities of higher education is always of value.