By Ben Davies
Central administration in a university is seen by some as the factor that keeps everything going in Higher Education, while others view it as invasive and pointless. Whichever way you look at it, administration is almost as big a part of a university as education is. Despite this, some wonder what central admin does. Is it there just to maintain staff and student records? Or does it have a greater purpose?
The role of university administration
Perhaps the main role of central administration is to ensure the smooth running of the university. This means maintaining matters relating to both staff and students. So it covers areas such as student finance, accommodation, records and other services. It also acts as the mediator between students and outside organisations, such as recruitment agencies. Jayne works as an administrator catering for PhD students.
"I deal with anything to do with PhD students including extensions of study, suspensions due to ill health or other circumstances, course transfers, and coding pass lists, among other things."
Administrative work in universities is diverse. A big part of central admin is taken up by liaising with the many departments within a university to ensure the singularity of purpose and the direction of the university as a whole.
Why work in university administration?
Central admin is at the heart of the higher education sector, keeping universities in good order and developing the services of a university. It is a progressive field to work in and requires close contact with students and academics. Mark, who worked in central administration at the University of Warwick, had this to say:
"I came into the job as a temp expecting to work a few days, but I wanted to stay because of the variety of work and the work environment".
Jayne, who has worked in university administration for a number of years, says that she enjoys "working with students, helping them to get through their studies with as few problems as possible." Administrators can make a real difference to the student experience, and, in turn, have an effect on the status and quality of the university itself.
Problems in the sector
Central administration comes under fire frequently. One reason for this is the nature of the work - having to mediate between academic department heads, students and governmental authorities. Mark states another problem for the sector:
"The relationship between the university and its students is changing in that students have become more like customers, with greater expectations of the services they buy from universities."
This is an issue that administrators have to address directly, finding ways to increase student satisfaction in both the range and the quality of services provided.
How to qualify
Central university administration is a varied field. The nature of the work is generally quite dependent on IT skills and practical intelligence. Secretarial duties are often required, as is the ability to manage projects and solve delicate problems. Jayne believes a degree is important, particularly if you want to progress to management level. "If the university is given a choice between employing a person with no degree but with experience in the field, or someone with a degree but no experience, generally they would employ the academic." As the nature of the work is HE-based, experience of university life as manifested in a degree can be advantageous.
How can I find a job in central admin?
The route into central admin is quite open. Mark had this to say:
"Taking temporary work within the office gave me a foot in the door and knowing something about how the office works gave me a big advantage when a permanent position became available."
Others have found themselves starting out as temporary staff, only for the job to be made permanent. Check with local temp agencies for work in this field. Permanent positions can be found here at jobs.ac.uk, and on internal HR websites. Jayne found her job through a local newspaper advertisement, and then downloaded the application form from the web. She had a fifteen minute interview and a fifteen minute test before being appointed to the position.
Although it might be necessary to start out at the bottom, progress can quickly be made. Administrators who started out doing basic duties can find themselves taking on managerial roles, and even progressing to the level of registrar. Administration is an exciting and progressive field to work in.