The expansion of higher education (HE) over recent decades has certainly highlighted its importance as an employment sector. With over 160 HE institutions in the UK, inclusive of 130 universities, there is greater demand for skilled staff to fill the many roles necessary to operate successfully. Many new roles have been created with support staff now outnumbering academics. Add to that the impact of globalization and we can see how HE is now an exciting, attractive employment prospect, well worth taking a look at.
As universities offer courses leading to degrees and qualifications, what usually comes to mind are academics giving lectures, seminars and marking essays. But supporting them is an army of professionals doing a wide variety of jobs: recruitment, enrolment, welfare, accommodation, marketing and PR, timetabling, to cite several examples.
The sector is not only large but also diverse: no two universities are the same. Apart from the historic Oxford and Cambridge there are the ‘redbricks,’ dating back to the 19th century, ‘plateglass’ universities established in the 1960s, and the former polytechnics awarded university status in 1992.
Advantages and benefits exist no matter whether you are working at Oxford’s ‘dreaming spires’ or a revamped former Poly in the middle of an inner-city area.
All universities have different histories and developments but there are key commonalities when thinking about opportunities in this sector.
This article considers some of the key benefits of working in HE.
Working with students
It could be said that a career in education is inherently satisfying because it involves assisting students to attain professional as well as educational development. Even in an indirect capacity, non-academics are an integral part of the systems and processes that help students to reach their goals.
Some students might start university lacking confidence, feeling anxious about what is required of them and perhaps lonely. Non-academics might be the first staff they meet in departmental offices. They can be guided about practical matters such as where lecture rooms and student facilities are, how to get library membership and how to submit their assessments. They may also be given advice about which campus food outlets serve the best coffee!
Helping students from the start to the end of their degrees can provide a sense of job satisfaction for support staff, just as with their academic counterparts.
We can add to that the diversity within the student body and the interesting variety of cultures they bring with them. Generally, this has impacted positively in terms of the cultural life of universities. This can be seen as beneficial for support staff not only during working hours but also in the varied events, student societies and celebrations seen on campus.
Coming into contact with students from across the globe, whether Chile, Czech Republic or China, can make distant places seem more familiar as information is gained about their homes, customs, and languages.
Most universities actively seek to incorporate the different cultures of their student body into the everyday life of the institution for the benefit of all. Many interesting and long-lasting ties can be established, for example through alumni associations. Graduates with fond memories of their UK universities, and those who helped them on their HE journey, often seek to retain these links.
Related to this is the mission of most HE institutions, no matter their size or student numbers, to promote a sense of belonging, with everyone being part of something bigger than their course, subject or department. Much work now goes into helping to promote this sense of identity and support staff play an integral part in that.
Working with academics
‘Academic staff’ is a broad term. It includes lecturers, teaching fellows, professors, heads of department, newly qualified or ‘old hands’, full and part-time staff members plus other roles that involve research. Just as with students, there is a diversity of interesting people to work with. New teaching staff may appreciate support and help with practical matters, just as students do. With different subjects being researched, books and articles written as well as lectures and seminars planned and delivered by academics, this can be a stimulating work environment for support staff to operate in.
Once again, the importance of the sense of belonging can be highlighted. In universities across the country, support staff collaborate with academics at all levels to foster a sense of teamwork and collegiality to help students reach their potential and the university to attain its goals.
Some roles are linked to specific members of staff in the institution’s hierarchy, such as heads of departments and professors. No matter what the role, relevant experience and skills are required and rewards follow from assisting them to fulfil their job to their best abilities.
Working with the public
Universities are outward-facing in many ways, not only in recruiting new students but also working with local communities, businesses, voluntary organisations and even the media. Support staff play a key role and many posts involve working with different members of the public, whether parents of potential students at Open Days or business leaders at conferences and other events.
It is often support staff who carry out liaison work with the public in order to help establish relationships, such as those enabling students to volunteer with local schools or homes for older people. This requires interpersonal and communication skills and offers opportunities to work with different people outside the university. Such work can lead to mutually beneficial cooperation with all those involved gaining an enhanced level of job satisfaction.
These are some of the key benefits of working in non-academic roles in the sector that can be investigated further if considering HE as a career destination.