Bridging the Gap Between Academic and Professional Managers

How do senior managers in university professional services gain credibility in their roles? Brody Hannan, Kelly Coate and Camille Kandiko Howson explain research into this issue.

The rise of ‘managerialism’ is a frequent object of attack in the higher education (HE) blogosphere. That universities are becoming increasingly ‘professionalised’, as individuals with technical skills from outside the higher education sector enter senior management in universities, is part of the more complex environment in which the UK’s mass HE sector sits. But as universities arguably move away from their more traditional, collegiate forms of management (of which many academics seem nostalgic) and towards more complex corporate structures, how can we bridge the cultural gap between academic and professional managers? Part of the answer lies in a better understanding of the careers and motivations of the most senior professional service leaders in higher education.

In a recent study, we interviewed 30 senior managers (at COO/Registrar level) in the professional services of universities on how they gained credibility in their roles and how they crossed academic and administrative boundaries. Three key themes emerged that could provide insight into how these ‘third space’ professionals will shape university management structures in the future.

1. Diverse Leadership Trajectories

Individuals who moved from traditional academic pathways to management roles in universities described opportunistic job changes, as if they had ‘fallen into’ them. This is compared to those senior managers who came from outside the higher education sector, and who were more strategic in the decision making in their career trajectories (often through relationships with headhunters).

Most participants attributed the recent increase in senior managers coming into universities from other sectors as a result of the growing public accountability demands which require strong leadership and decision-making skills, and an understanding of the ‘bigger picture’.

Some of these ‘professional managers’ also had ambitions to continue to rise up the ranks. While there were some senior managers who felt the sector was not ready for those at their level to hold the Vice Chancellor position, others noted that managers in these professional service roles, such as the Secretary, Registrar or COO, already possessed the skills and experiences to manage the wider university institution already.

2. Credibility Through Varied Experience

Managers who had come from outside the higher education sector talked about being able to see the ‘big picture’ of the organisation, and perceived their role as one of ensuring the organisation achieves long-term success in a rapidly changing environment. Some of them felt that higher education is not a ‘special’ sector, as working across sectors simply requires becoming familiar with the norms and cultures of each sector.

Such reasoning contrasts with the more ‘siloed’ focus of traditional academia, and enables senior professional leaders to often gain a reputation for solving difficult problems that others had been unable to solve.

In ‘sorting out’ a particularly problematic area of the institution, managers from non-higher education backgrounds gravitated towards the less glamorous, more problematic aspects of university management – including audit, health and safety, and adjudication.

Professional leaders also understood the importance of possessing general management skills and an ability to work with a variety of people, which they believed they had acquired throughout their diverse career. They viewed traditional academic pathways as not providing enough formalised training or management experience for the types of senior leadership development necessary in a contemporary university.

3. Motivated By Challenges

Senior managers from outside the sector were motivated by a deep commitment to the role of universities, their history and public value – to make a contribution in shaping lives and transforming society – describing universities as a ‘force for good’.

Others were motivated to transition into university management to be a part of the sector’s challenges and traditions, seeing them as interesting and possibly even fun. As one participant, who came into the higher education sector after a long career in federal government, noted: “I thought I would probably enjoy myself in a leading university.”

Another participant described how he was lured from jobs in the health sector into higher education by a VC who was able to sell both the challenges and the appeal of a university environment: “[The VC] talked about all the difficulties that he was encountering, all the challenges that were there. And he presented a storyline that represented, sort of like a corporate rescue with a significant value-added aspect of what a university did, both in terms of its impact on the locality, on the students. I remember coming and talking to my wife about it and saying it just sounds very different. I might as well give it a go.”

Bridging the Gap

It seems likely that the number of senior managers from backgrounds external to the HE sector will continue to increase in future years, with more professional services staff rising higher up the ranks to fill new COO type posts (and maybe Vice Chancellor posts).

As these senior managers view credibility to be gained through managing difficult projects in the interests of the institution, university managers might think about adjusting their selection and recruitment processes accordingly if they wish to see their academic colleagues promoted into higher education management positions.

To prepare future academic leaders for the roles they will be required to do, they could first be provided with formalised training to equip them with the general management skills needed to lead in a diverse environment.

Training is a fairly technical approach, however, which on its own will not bring about a culture change that will bring the ‘two cultures’ closer together. Universities are now subject to more external pressures, more scrutiny and more influence from governing councils than before. Enabling all staff to understand the contemporary context is important: there is, in our view, too much blame placed on senior professionals for overbearing ‘managerialism’ when their main concerns are to enable the core business to thrive, while keeping the university financially afloat and out of legal difficulties.

In further developing the skills of senior leaders and bridging the two cultures, we hope the universities of the future can maintain their academic values, while celebrating an inclusive and collaborative workforce which enables those values to thrive.


Kelly Coate will be presenting this research at the AHUA Autumn Conference on 14th September 2018. 

Brody Hannan writes in his capacity as a King’s Undergraduate Research Fellow; Professor Kelly Coate is Pro Vice Chancellor Education and Students at the University of Sussex; and Dr Camille Kandiko Howson is Senior Lecturer in Higher Education at King’s College London.