In a recent article in the Times Higher, the registrar of the University of Nottingham calls attention to an important and often overlooked dimension to the politics of the UK government’s higher education ‘reforms’: the role of support staff. As pro-marketization ideologues clamour for the out sourcing out of ‘back office’ services to private contractors, the people who perform these roles, often deeply entrenched in their home institutions, are treated as the most easily replaceable cogs in University PLC. He suggests that this reflects a wider under appreciation of a large swathe of the university’s staff:
Too often, their somewhat anonymous roles mean that they are treated as third-class citizens in the university context. Because they are out of sight and largely out of mind, most people really don’t know what they do; as a consequence, it becomes much easier for others to write them off and offer them up as the first to be sacrificed when cuts have to be made. Back-office staff do not have an obvious income line and can easily be regarded as expendable. The attitude is resonant of the Victorian view of those “below stairs”. This perception (or lack of perception) is unhelpful, and not terribly good for morale – particularly among those who are so casually dismissed as being “just back office”.
Furthermore, it suggests that such staff have no role in the ‘front line’ operations of the university. This is patently absurd. Such ‘front line’ operations are endlessly reliant on ‘back end’ staff. To such an extent that teaching and research couldn’t function without them and the entire dichotomy is revealed as misleading. As he writes:
But in any position, people – whether they are employed by a university or by a private-sector company – must be treated properly. Universities are special places. Interactions with and understanding of academic staff and students are a key part of every job throughout the organisation. Lock people away in the back office and they might as well be working for a paper wholesaler in Slough.
In a theatre, the front-of-house and back-of-house personnel have different roles and different talents; nonetheless, all are vital in supporting the performance. In universities, all professional services staff, whether in direct contact with academic staff and students or not, contribute to institutional success. Casual talk of outsourcing or downsizing back-office functions undermines this contribution.
So please choose your words carefully. Better still, let’s just ban the term “back office”.
Here at SI we agree completely. But let’s not just ban the term ‘back office’. Let’s also make more of an effort to recognise the hard and sometimes thankless work of those whose skill and diligence daily prevents the intrinsically chaos-prone institutions that are universities from spiralling into chaos.
Categories: Higher Education