Higher Education Notebooks

Challenges for Professional Services Staff: Language

The political (using the term in the broadest possible sense) environment of Higher Education has changed substantially in the last several years, and there is a great deal of uncertainty about the future of Higher Education Institutions across the UK. This has been most recently demonstrated by the (entirely unsurprising) news that several education providers are in substantial financial difficulty.

All staff and students across the UK should be concerned about this. For Professional Services staff, the current environment has a direct effect on at least two of the three primary practical challenges that are faced on a day to day basis, regardless of the political context in which they operate.

These three primary challenges relate to:

  • Language
  • Resources
  • Resilience

This blog post will consider the first of these challenges: language.


“It ain’t what they call you, it’s what you answer to.” (W. C. Fields)

Taking care with the language we choose to use is a responsibility for everyone, indicating a basic human respect for our fellow beings. Given this is increasingly so commonly acknowledged, why is it that we can’t get it right when it comes to Professional Services staff in universities?

There are two primary ways in which language affects the ways in which Professional Services staff are perceived: firstly, the language used to describe them, and; secondly, the language used to communicate with them.

Much has been written about what to call Professional Services staff, which is why it’s all the more surprising that there is still such a difference in how staff are badged. And, even in institutions which make the effort to rationalise a group name and promote the concept of Professional Services, you will still find many staff referring to Professional Services staff by other terms.

Common consensuses are always hard to reach, so why is it so hard for so many colleagues to take the first principle of self-definition and ask their fellow colleagues what they wish to be called? Don’t just refer to them as administrators, secretaries, or support staff. Speak to them.

Personally, I prefer Professional Services as a group name as this at least attempts to cover the many areas of expertise that such staff, as a group, are expected to demonstrate across an institution. Amusingly, when I raised the repeated usage of “support staff” at my previous institution (in an Athena Swan presentation, no less), the response was that the term had been chosen because it also encompassed laboratory and technical staff. Heaven forbid that we imagine that there are more groups of staff than those who are defined as academics and those who are not. This might not fall within the remit of unconscious bias, but it certainly does indicate an institution-wise indoctrinated view. Here is the box we have created for you. Be grateful.

Issues with naming conventions are not the only problems in terms of language. How Professional Services colleagues are spoken to – or, more commonly, emailed – affects how they feel going about their day-to-day jobs. When I was initially drafting the presentation upon which this blog post is partially based, I asked colleagues and friends across the sector for examples of such communication. These included:

  • The Bridget Jones: “I am extremely busy” indignant reply, when a colleague is asked to do something which happens to be part of their role (with recurring chorus of “I have no time to learn a new system”);
  • The Parental Play-Off: “I have emailed [Insert Name Here] and haven’t had a response” (email sent about half an hour ago), and;
  • The Cold Shoulder: silence. Subtext: you are not deemed worthy of even a quick holding message as response.

It’s hard to see how such attitudes, at times pervasive, do not affect the morale and self-worth of some staff. It may be “just” a single email sent in frustration at an unrelenting workload (or lack of time management skills), but that’s likely to be one in many received on a weekly basis by some staff. It all adds up.

This, to me, gets to the crux of the issue relating to language used in relation to Professional Services staff: and that is the role that language performs in defining the institutional value – or at the least the perception thereof – of such staff. This plays to some extent into a respect-related agenda, but also into power dynamics. All Professional Services roles require an expertise of some sort. Some are more specialised than others. To undertake some roles, it takes more professional training than it takes some colleagues to be allowed to teach students. Why, then, is it so hard for some individuals to treat their fellow colleagues appropriately?

At this point, I have to acknowledge the many, many colleagues I have worked with who absolutely do embrace the expertise of their Professional Services colleagues: but the underlying issues are not going away. If you think I’m exaggerating the disrespect with which Professional Services are treated at times, here’s a comment on a Times Higher Education article from April 2016, by way of an example. This – posted later in the evening, probably after a glass of wine or three – was initially attributed to a senior academic at the institution I was, at that time, employed. By the next morning it had been (rather sensibly) anonymised:

“It is interesting that most companies are moving to an agile workforce that completes its work without having to show presence in the workplace yet the University is moving backwards in time. I wonder what the overseers will do when my 40 hours is completed by the end of the day on Wednesday because of my intense workload in teaching and research. And the fact that I don’t have the luxury as do admin staff of taking 6 weeks of holiday a year or would never complete my job. We faculty work for students and for those who fund our research, yet this policy is set up so that admin staff will have the control over us they so desire. We do not work for them. They are interested in the lowest levels of administrivia to justify their existence and would have us complete paperwork all day to demonstrate our value to them.”

One of the most frustrating things about the above comment (which can be seen as a not-uncommon viewpoint in microcosm) is sheer ignorance that the pressures that lie heavy on academics across institutions are not necessarily any greater than those that lie on certain Professional Services colleagues. Such acute lack of awareness is rather stunning, to say the least.

(There are also Things To Say about professional martyrdom across Higher Education – linking to what Nat Eliason, somewhat unfortunately, refers to as “struggle porn” in relation to business development and entrepreneurship. Undoubtedly, this will be the focus of a future post.)

We should not, however, think for one second that all of the issues relating to the language and treatment of Professional Services colleagues lie solely at the feet of academics. Some of the worst examples come from Professional Services colleagues. I was somewhat bemused, when I started work at one university, how painfully grade-aware many colleagues were: they genuinely did not know how to treat fellow Professional Services staff until they knew how much they were being paid compared to themselves. This was something which was also noted by several other colleagues who had experiences of working at other universities (and, therefore, a comparative basis for assessment).

On the international political spectrum, the importance and power of the language we use is finally being taken seriously (for the most part). It is a shame that, in institutions often considered or promoted as being bastions of current thinking, there remains an underlying, prevalent attitude that negatively impacts how so many people across the sector approach their work on a day-to-day basis. There is only so much we can do as individuals, managers, and teams: universities need to take the wellbeing of their staff seriously. Wellbeing doesn’t always mean undertaking substantial, heavily publicised projects which address a small slither of staff mental health issues. All staff should, as standard, feel valued for their roles and contributions. And this will not happen until there is a zero-tolerance approach to certain attitudes, and all colleagues in an institution – academic, Professional Services, technical staff – feel able to raise any issues relating to their individual treatment in the knowledge that they will be taken seriously: because they, themselves, are taken seriously as valuable members of the wider university.

Read more:
Challenges for Professional Services Staff: Language
Challenges for Professional Services Staff: Resources
Challenges for Professional Services Staff: Resilience
The Need for Cohesive Educational Communities
Learning from the Folklore of Higher Education

This post is based on part of a presentation I gave in April 2018: The Role of Professional Services Staff in Higher (Medical) Education. The talk focussed on thoughts and observations about the experiences of, and challenges facing, Professional Services staff in the twenty-first century environment, and their role in Higher Education communities. Seen through the filter of my own academic, personal, and professional experiences, the intention was to offer some food for thought (and discussion) on the role of identity and its importance in building cohesive educational communities which draw on the professional expertise of each and every individual.

Leave a Reply