Improving Your Academic Administration Skills

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How to access extra help, training and advice

Administrative tasks did not form part of the training we’ve been through to teach and research, and setting up spreadsheets or running reports may well be a waste of expensive time, tasks that would be better left in the hands of experienced administrators. Be that as it may, most universities seem to think academics should be doing these jobs on top of our own, and after you’ve complained, you’ll probably need to get on with the work. But where to start?

The most difficult system to handle is always the biggest and most complex. Unfortunately, it’s at the core of university work: the main student database. This is usually a custom-made database (the Banner system sold by Ellucian, for example) built using a package like Oracle, and it is rarely a standalone application. Data comes in from and is sent out to other databases, such as those for tracking admissions, graduate supervisions, marking and assessment, and graduation. It may look like one big thing, but in reality it’s a set of intersecting tables and files that are constantly being updated.

Ask for training.

Almost every university in the UK runs internal courses on how to use these core assets, but oddly, academics are rarely invited to attend unless it’s a new system (especially if they are given “read-only” access). Start by asking your line manager to set up access, and follow up with a request for formal training. This is crucial: make sure you request training that is accessible to academics. If you find yourself in a class with administrative employees who are already experts with databases, spreadsheets, report requests and the rest, you will be completely at sea. 

Ask the experts to simplify.

If you are blessed with a database wizard in your department, ask if they can create a report for you and your colleagues that shows you what you need to see, without buying it in a sea of unrelated data. Customised reports are a snap for the spreadsheet-savvy, and can be updated at regular intervals. 

Make sure you understand data protection rules.

It is incredibly easy to accidentally breach privacy law when using campus systems. UK academics have been hauled up for everything from leaving a student’s file on-screen in a shared office during a lunch break, to sending an email to a group of students in which other recipients’ email addresses were visible. If it isn't included in your training, ask trainers to show you how to encrypt and decrypt files, how to bcc a mass email, and other key operations.

Get help online.

Start with your campus help desk, as they’re close at hand. Check for online tutorials created by your staff development department, too. There may be also be help in forums dedicated to the products your university uses. For example, Banner users can try Ellucian’s “Commons” forum ( With support and information, you’ll find your way.

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