Defining the future profession | AUA Blog

“Nobody I have ever met in 15 years of working in HE ever intended to be a university administrator. Perhaps we should do something to change that…”


Susannah Marsden MAUA
Director of Student and Academic Services
Student and Academic Services
City, University of London


When someone from outside the sector asks you what you do for a living, what do you say? I have worked in Higher Education for 23 years, starting as what was then a Course Officer through to my current role as Director of Student & Academic Services at City, University of London, and my stock reply to that question all the way along has been “oh, I work at a university”. Next question is usually – “are you a teacher?” to which my current reply will be (depending on the audience) either, “no, I’m a manager” or “no, I run the student services there, it is quite a big job.”

Now, neither of these answers are fully accurate in that I am actually a leader as part of City’s Executive Committee, and my role is far wider than student services. The challenge I find in these conversations is not that I feel at all shy about talking about my job (previous or current) but is how to say what I do in a way that is meaningful to the other person. What goes on in the non-academic inner workings of a university is not something that is commonly known about, and in the current negative media climate about universities it is perhaps even more difficult to suggest that a substantial un-named profession is operating behind-the-scenes. Even within our own institutions, we can often be seen as those people who deal with ‘everything else’ that is not delivered by those professional services commonly found in other sectors (e.g. Marketing, HR, IT, Finance), and on bad days sometimes we may just be identified as a significant extra cost, or annoying bureaucrats. But we are in fact the professional service that makes universities different to other sectors. We contribute significantly to the success of our students and our institutions, as well as often being the ones managing significant risk. So why is it that our professional identity is so nebulous?

The history of student and academic administration rests in models of departmental secretaries, an Academic Registrar, hand-written assessment grids and memos. Ask those people at that time what they did, and the answer was probably pretty clear. But that set-up bears little resemblance to the roles and organisational models we now have in place to support a very different Higher Education scene. And while a much bigger infrastructure has developed in response to this change, it is arguable that this has not gone hand-in-hand with a sector-wide establishment of clear professional identities or career paths for professionals working in this area.

At the AUA Annual Conference 2019, I co-delivered a session with Hugh Jones (Hugh Jones Consulting) called ‘Defining our Future Profession’, based on some analysis and research we have been working on during the last 18 months about the current state and status of the profession. We see a gap that needs to be addressed, and we have some ideas about how to take that forward. Our session was designed partly to test out that gap, as well as collaborate with other professionals to shape possible next steps.

The session touched briefly on the historic context of the profession, but more importantly looked at where we were going next. In a context of changing student expectations, a new regulatory environment, increased competition and new workforce expectations (never mind changes to funding, pensions, Brexit or media scrutiny) what does this mean for us as professionals as well as what the sector needs from our profession?

Within the session we presented some research about what is happening in the sector. Responses we had received from over 30 Academic Registrars showed that at an organisational level during the last 5 years the student and academic administration function has been moving to a more joined-up approach, whether this is a hybrid model or a ‘centralisation’. The majority of institutions were engaged in change projects in relation to the student journey with process improvement, enrolment and welcome, student information and communications and student support operations topping the most common areas of change. Our research also showed us that leaders and managers were seeking changing skill-sets. One notable comment was “The posts we are recruiting to are increasingly specialist, yet paradoxically we’re increasingly looking for skills that are or can be transferrable.” Others commented on the need for flexibility, ability to move things forward, skilled project managers, data skills and agility.

The interactive part of our session resulted in over 100 ideas being shared by delegates across 6 themes that we provided, and this offered rich information to inform professional development needs, effectiveness of roles and activities and what is needed from others. Within this full range of ideas, however, one topic stood out. Colleagues want a clear career progression framework.

Hugh Jones and I are keen to collaborate with colleagues across the sector on how to progress this work. We think it is critical to ensure that the profession is fit for the future demands of the sector, providing on-going expertise, support and leadership. Change is happening to everyone playing an active role in the HE sector and professionals who are working within the student and education sphere are some of those at the forefront of this change. We are no longer those who deal with ‘everything else’, we are a valid and vital profession which we need to recognise, identify, grow, develop, evolve and sustain. We are unique.  We are really interested to hear from colleagues who would like to get involved in this work so please email me at


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