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Leadership careers for professional services: a provocation for discussion and debate


Within the higher education sector, we all know, or think we know, that professional services staff play a critical role in the strategic and operational success of a university, contributing to the effectiveness and sustainability of the institution and enhancing the student experience. Their diverse skill sets and expertise are integral to the multifaceted and complex nature of our institutions. In an Australian study for the University Development and Administration (UDAA) series (2018), authors Bossu and Brown acknowledge that: ‘Professional and support staff are one of the universities’ most valuable assets, as they hold much of the corporate knowledge required to ensure that universities operate efficiently and effectively.’

Yet, something surprising happens when we come to look for the evidence to prove our case. We find a limited body of knowledge, as Bossu and Brown both concede: ‘It’s surprising that their work, impact, careers, and aspirations remain largely unexplored’.

King’s College London researchers, Alison Wolf and Andrew Jenkins, confirm meanwhile in their 2021 paper entitled Managers and academics in a centralising sector, that a literature trawl on professional services yields little. They highlight the absence of in-depth analysis within what constitutes a potentially rich research field of organisational structure, design and people: ‘It is a curious fact that in both the academic and the policy discussion of universities, half of their staff are almost entirely ignored. […] extremely little is written about them. This is true for the academic literature, for the policy writing that most directly informs government thinking and of education journalism.'(3) Given that professional services staff comprise nearly half of an intensely scrutinised whole it is singular that they should remain somewhat invisible: ‘two parallel workforces of very much the same size, and this is a fundamental structural feature of the sector.'(4) The rigid binary division Wolf and Jenkins reference is a rarity of organisational design and may even be unique to the university sector.

Just as there is little literature on many aspects of professional services, so too on the leadership careers of their staff. This provocation will therefore draw largely on the Advance HE 2023-24 Leadership Survey for Higher Education (specifically data/information from professional services staff on how they view their own leadership opportunities and challenges); HESA data; and findings from a survey conducted by AHEP (formerly the AUA). This will permit us to bring the voice of professional services staff to the fore and enable us to ask the most immediate and urgent questions identified within the profession by those who seek to lead it.

We hope that this current paper will provoke reflection and deliberation in the sector. It is by its nature a snapshot of such a complex entity as HE professional services.  As you will see in Section E – Next steps, we will be inviting you to expand and deepen the debate. 

Read the full provocation here

Author: Dr Geraldine Harrison

This article has been kindly repurposed from Advance HE and you can read the original here.