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Human Resource Management in Higher Education

Higher Education Professionals: Job requirements and training options

Katsia Mikalayeva, Nguyen Thanh Tung and Inga Zalyevska

The identity of non-academic professionals in higher education institutions

With growing accountability demands on higher education institutions (HEIs), it is inevitable that the number of managerial and administrative staff is increasing (Gornitzka & Marheim Larsen, 2004 and Blümel, Kloke, Krücken, & Netz, 2010). Kehm (2012) also notices the growth and defines the new groups:

“This is the growth in numbers of new groups of mostly highly qualified professionals to support organizational change and decision-making. These persons are not primarily active in research and teaching themselves but entrusted to prepare and support decisions of the management, establish services, and actively shape the core activities of the organization. We have called this group the new “higher education professionals” (p.1-2).

While there is a significant body of literature on the academic profession, there is little analysis of these new higher education professionals (Allen-Collinson, 2010). Such analysis is needed in three main areas: entry of new HE professionals into the field and development of their professional identity; reconciling the tension between academics and their non-academic managers; and emergence of ‘third space professionals’ (Whitchurch, 2008) who maneuver in and out of managerial and academic projects, and fill in new roles as they emerge.

There are several contributing factors to the identity struggle of new HE professionals. One of them is absence of a sense of belonging to the workplace environment. For most young HE professionals, the existential question "what am I doing here?" is unavoidable when their activities do not fall neatly into one of the institution's core missions be it teaching, research or community service. Additionally, in the world of academia, it is considered that the academics are the elite class, the core of the system and the native with full citizenship. In contrast, many think the others are second-class citizens or even foreigners, being there just to support (or un-support) academics.

This unnecessary but real polarity between academics and non-academics creates tension between academic and managerial staff. As Daxner (2010, p.22) notices, often 'a condescending attitude is developed by the academic staff' towards the non-academics due to the perceived inferiority in the division of labor. Consequently, academics tend to hold their 'other' colleagues in little respect and not value the work accomplished by them. In another aspect, with the rise of new public management some academics view HE professionals as adversaries who put extra bureaucratic work on them or interfere in academic affairs (Kehm, 2012). As a result, some academics feel that their academic freedom and self-governance are in jeopardy and use what is left of it to confront their perceived enemies. This evidently impedes the effectiveness and efficiency of HE professionals' work as well as the development of the institution. To worsen the situation, there has been a current of literature criticizing the evolution of HE profession as a 'management fad' (Birnbaum, 2000) or as the cause of 'the fall of the faculty' (Ginsberg, 2011), which hurts its image and practitioners' confidence.

And, finally, the third phenomenon that merits attention is the emergence of cross-boundary, or unbounded, professionals in HEIs as identified and described by Whitchurch (2008, 2012). These people perform multiple and complex types of activities at the same time, and the description of their job is constantly evolving. Their emergence may be due to a new strategy of the institution or the changes in its environment which have never existed before. Those who are blended professionals, working in the third space, often carry the double identity of both an academic and a manager, their career resembling a portfolio of experiences and skills rather than a vertical ladder. 

It is a mark of an established profession if there is a set of skills associated with it, as well as a qualification obtained as the result of specialized training. Our paper intends to contribute to the conversation on professionalization of higher education by analyzing the demands placed on higher education professionals by the labor market and the training options available to them. We will focus on US and UK as instances of higher education systems where new public management is well developed and a the professionalization of higher education services is at an advanced stage.


Analysis of UK and US advertisements for higher education professionals

In order to determine whether higher education profession is a distinctive career, UK and US job advertisements were analyzed. The Times Higher Education (THE), an influential and respected web source in the field of higher education, was used for this analysis. The THE is well-known for its World University Rankings and is a reputable source covering news and issues related to higher education. Additionally, job announcements on an authoritative American higher education website, the United States’ Chronicle of Higher Education, were examined to observe whether the state of the higher education profession differs in the United States and the UK.

Four key questions formed the basis for this analysis:

- What employment positions exist for higher education professionals?

- What are the academic requirements for these positions? Do they ask for Master’s degrees in higher education management or any degree may suffice to obtain the advertised jobs?

- What are the skills and work experience demanded by employers?

- Is university teaching experience required in addition to management practice?

Answers to these questions are seen to be demonstrative of the condition of the higher education profession. Naturally, it is of utmost importance to specify what types of positions are reserved for higher education professionals. The question about academic requirements for advertised positions shows the level of professionalization of the higher education career. If a formal degree in higher education is required, the level of professionalization is undoubtedly high, proving higher education management as a legitimate profession. If, on the contrary, any master’s degree is acceptable as far as applicant possesses sufficient managerial experience, a conclusion can be drawn that the profession has not yet achieved its independence. The question on skills is directly related to applicant’s previous experience acquired both in the academic and work environments. Demonstrative of the level of professionalization of the higher education profession are the requirements of previous experience in higher education institutions specifically against experience in any institution where a similar skill set can be acquired. The former evidently favors independence of the higher education profession, while the latter indicates the lack of its professionalization. The last question aids in resolving whether higher education administration is still tied to the academe or has its own professional standing.

The analysis of over 80 higher education job advertisements in the UK and more than 150 in the United States has shown interesting results. In the first place, the complex presentation of job advertisements immediately catches one’s eye suggesting the intricate structure of administration of contemporary higher education institutions. A plethora of categories and subcategories of various administrative and executive higher education positions reflects the complexity of the structure of modern universities, the abundance of professional roles, tasks, and, accordingly, job opportunities for higher education professionals (Jobs.timeshighereducation.co.uk, 2014; The Chronicle of Higher Education, 2014).

Based on the job advertisement categories on the two websites, higher education administration professions can be divided into two main groups: executive professions and general administrative jobs. Deans, directors, heads of departments, provosts, chancellors, presidents and their deputies belong to the first group and represent highly authoritative positions in higher education institutions. Administrative positions belonging to the second group cover a vast area of activity within HEIs. According to the THE, these positions belong to such various areas of university administration as human resources, international activities, student services, admissions, registrar’s office, development, estates and facilities management, alumni relations, and finance and procurement (Jobs.timeshighereducation.co.uk, 2014). Positions in these areas of HE administration are umpteen, ranging from admissions administrators and assistants and human resources managers to international student advisors and business development managers. As for the United States, higher education institutions have yet further opportunities for HE administrators in the areas of management of distance education programs, adult and continuing education programs management, career services, and institutional research (The Chronicle of Higher Education, 2014). Moreover, due to the high level of societal diversity, there are special higher education units dedicated to affirmative action and equal opportunity administration and minority and multicultural affairs management. Unlike in the UK, administrative jobs at financial aid offices of American HEIs are common. High tuition fees force students to seek financial aid consulting and services thus creating new job opportunities for higher education professionals.

Higher education professionals undoubtedly have an abundance of choices of employment in the UK and even more so in the United States, determined by the complexity of the structures of higher education institutions and the multiplicity of administrative tasks. But does the existence of diverse job opportunities for higher education workforce necessarily translate into the establishment of professional identity of the higher education expert? To suggest the answer to this question, academic and professional requirements in the job advertisements have to be considered.

After careful examination of the advertised positions, a clear picture of the state of the higher education profession came into sight. Before revealing the conclusion of the advertisement analysis, it is essential to point out that academic and professional requirements for executive and general administrative jobs differ considerably, as might be expected.

Deans, provosts, chancellors, presidents, directors, and other executive staff both in the UK and the United States are required to have an advanced degree, generally doctoral, extensive managerial experience, proven successful academic record, and teaching experience, while excellent interpersonal, communication and leadership skills are a given. As an example, a candidate for president’s position at San Jose Community college is required to have at least a Master’s degree, three years of experience in higher education administration, effective leadership and communication skills, and experience in classroom instruction and teaching English to non-native speakers (Vitae | The Chronicle of Higher Education, President, San Jose City College, 2014). An advertisement of a vacancy of director of Academic Law at the University of West England requested a candidate with high achievement in the areas of research, teaching, and administration in academic or professional law, experience of academic leadership, and effective leadership skills (Jobs.timeshighereducation.co.uk, Director of Academic Law, 2014). Importantly, none of the analysed job advertisements for executive positions asked for advanced degrees in higher education administration specifically. For deans of schools and heads of departments it is necessary to have advanced degrees in the subjects taught in the departments in question, like marine biology, psychology, or law, for instance. Curiously, to take a high executive post at an HEI an applicant does not need a degree in higher education administration. Extensive managerial experience in a higher education setting, leadership and communication skills, teaching experience, and an advanced degree in any subject (with the exclusion of heads and directors of specific academic units) are sufficient to land a job as a high rank executive in an HEI.

As for the general administrative positions, the requirements for these jobs are generally more demanding in the United States in comparison with the UK. In the UK a necessary skill set including excellent organizational, interpersonal, time management, IT skills and ability to be a team player, together with some administrative experience, will suffice to land an entry or middle level job in a higher education setting (Jobs.timeshighereducation.co.uk, 2014). Importantly, an academic degree is rarely asked for. In the United States, on the contrary, at least an Associate’s degree is requested in order for an applicant to be eligible for a position in higher education administration, while a Bachelor’s qualification is essential in the majority of advertisements (The Chronicle of Higher Education, 2014). Besides, the skills and abilities for general administrative positions are more specific and directly related to applicants’ previous experience in a certain area of higher education administration. The jobs in institutional research are a special case, as they require a combination of high-level technical skills (knowledge of SQL, SPSS, advanced statistical skills, etc.) as well as managerial and communication skills, and a global understanding of higher education policy and issues in order to interpret and communicate the data. 

The answer to the main question of this analysis, whether a degree in higher education administration is requested for general administrative positions, is a “no” in most of the advertisements both in the UK and in the US. International education positions in the United States served as an exception to this general rule, where job advertisements asked for advanced professional higher education degrees or listed them as preferred. For instance, a Master’s degree in higher education administration is preferred for a potential assistant director of the Center of Global Education at the University of Wisconsin. (Vitae | The Chronicle of Higher Education, Assistant Director, 2014).

The analysis of the job advertisements suggests the answers to the questions proposed in the beginning of this section. Academic teaching experience in combination with a terminal degree in one’s field is an obligatory requirement for obtaining high executive positions in higher education, proving that higher education administration at high level of authority remains strongly linked to the academics. This might be evidence of the lack of trust in managers without academic qualifications that we discussed in the first section of the paper. Positions at the entry and mid levels of higher education administration do not ask for academic instruction experience. Academic requirements for the positions vary in the levels of academic degrees, but, most importantly, the vast majority of the jobs do not require a professional degree in higher education administration. As for the skills and work experience, general administrative positions in the UK have very basic requirements for the abilities of potential employees and find any prior administrative experience sufficient. In the United States employers look for a more specialized set of skills and demand previous administrative experience directly in a higher education institution. For executive jobs both in the UK and the US, extensive managerial experience and effective communication and leadership skills are two main assets that qualify applicants for advertised positions.

To summarize these findings, the higher education profession in the UK does not prove to yet have its own independent standing. Acquiring administrative jobs in higher education setting does not require specialized professional degrees, the demanded set of skills is either very basic or attainable through previous administrative experience, and those who apply for high executive positions have to demonstrate previous teaching experience. Analysis of the British advertisements thus contributes to the opinion that HE profession is not yet professionalized enough and, consequently, the identity struggle of a higher education professional is ongoing. In the United States the level of professionalization of the profession is higher, showing a possible direction that the development of the profession can take in Europe.


Degree programs in higher education

As a complementary aspect of our analysis, we will look at degree programs in higher education management in the US and UK. The question we intend to answer in this part of the analysis is as follows:

- How do training programs in higher education relate to the employment requirements in the labor market?

In terms of career orientation, programs in the US and UK are generally of two types – with a broad analytical focus, and with managerial orientation. Examples of the first type would be MSc in Education (Higher Education) program offered at Oxford University or MA in Higher and Professional Education at the Institute of Education in London. They are aimed at a range of professional tracks – in academia, policy-making, research and management. Program outcomes are typically described in terms of ‘gaining critical insights into a range of theories, methods, and methodologies for studying policies and practices in higher and professional education’ and ‘using research to analyze and evaluate current structures and future reforms of higher education’ (program specifications and websites).

Another type of program targets people who hold positions in higher education management – these are either stand-alone MBA programs in higher education management or a specialization within an MBA course. Institute of Education at the University of London offers this type of program as well – MBA in Higher Education Management. The approach taken by this program is decidedly business-like, with universities described as ‘multi-million pound organisations which require effective management to meet their objectives, whether academic, financial or their wider commitments to society’ (Programme Specification, MBA Higher Education Management). The choice of final assessment – a consultancy project – also reflects a business orientation of the program. However, at closer look, this program is also largely based on coursework and the typical teaching methods – lectures, readings, class discussions and written papers. In fact, the learning outcomes are mostly phrased in terms of reflective and analytical abilities that the students will gain, rather than management-related skills. In this sense, there is not a dramatic difference from the academically oriented programs. This program is conceptualized as an enhancement to already advanced careers in university management, rather than a stepping point into one.

In the US, there is a similar division of programs, but we see a more nuanced profiling with concentrations offered in various aspects. For example, the program in Higher Education Administration at Vanderbuilt University is aimed specifically at students who wish to enter administrative roles in universities. This focus is already quite specialized compared to the broad approach taken at Oxford, for example, but the students are able to specialize even further in one of the five areas – student affairs, enrollment management, higher education policy, international higher education or general administration.

A few schools in the US attempt to answer the need for both theoretical and managerial training by offering dual MA/MBA programs in Higher Education (e.g., University of Michigan, Stanford University, Boston College). Part of the coursework leads to an understanding of HEIs from theoretical perspective, and part – to understanding management of universities. Again, however, descriptions of courses on the MBA side of the program point to learning ‘about’ management in universities rather than developing a demonstrated skill set. For example, the course ‘Managing to Outcomes in Education and Other Sectors’ (from Stanford MA/MBA program) is described in the following terms: ‘we will examine the challenges of managing to outcomes in various contexts’, ‘we will focus on interconnections among strategic planning, performance budgeting, and performance management’, ‘we will also look at experiments with new funding vehicles’. The language used in the description does not lead one to believe that students will come out of the course with a skill set, but perhaps instead with knowledge about management.

Universities are not the only venues for professional development in higher education. Association of University Administrators (AUA) in the UK offers a Postgraduate Certificate in Professional Practice, developed a framework of professional competencies in the field of higher education (AUA Continuing Professional Development framework) as well as supports the practice-based Graduate Programme for University Leadership. The latter is unique in the sense that it consists entirely of paid work placements at partner universities with one course module called The UK Higher Education Sector taken alongside the placements. Competencies and knowledge required for university administration are, thus, developed directly in the field whether it is finance, alumni relations, career services or academic research centers.

Based on our analysis of job ads in the previous section, for executive positions at universities, experience (especially in management, external relations and fundraising) and a PhD in one’s field are the basic requirements. For administrative positions, expertise in one’s own field (whether accounting, library management, human resources or any of the other support services) is sought after. In this context, if the goal is to train university executives, the AUA Graduate Programme for University Leadership offers a key asset that graduates of traditional programs might find themselves lacking – practical experience and demonstrated abilities to achieve results for an HEI.

There are, thus, a variety of training options available to those who are considering a career in higher education administration. However, most university-based programs, even those that aim to train managers, have a strong analytical orientation – a useful enhancement and refreshment to a working professional, but hardly a priority to anybody applying to jobs from outside the sector. As such, university programs might be a good choice for somebody considering a career in higher education analysis or consulting, but hardly a good choice as an entry point into university administration.   



Our discussion leads us to conclude that higher education administration is on its way to professionalization, but without clear-cut entry criteria yet. UK is making strides in this direction, e.g. through the development of the AUA CPD framework. In both UK and US labor markets, a strong link between academic and managerial career tracks still exists at the highest executive level, while there are few job advertisements that specifically require training in the field of higher education administration. At the same time, there are high-quality training programs for professionals in the field of higher education: academics, policy makers, and managers. There are better and more plentiful choices among university programs for those who are analytically-minded and considering a career in policy, research or consulting. However, in the absence of specific degree requirements for HEI managers, most of the training and networking is still best gained on the job. If universities intend to really cater to all the diversity of career tracks and prepare professionals as well as analysts, it is necessary to diversify the teaching methods and forge a closer link between learning outcomes and the necessities of the labor market.



Allen-Collinson, J. (2010). Just ‘non-academics’? Research Administrators in Higher Education and Contested Occupational Identity. Academic and Professional Identities in Higher Education: Blurred Boundaries and Emerging Spaces (pp. 9-11). SRHE Annual Research Conference.

Birnbaum, R. (2000). Management Fads in Higher Education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Blümel, A., Kloke, K., Krücken, G., & Netz, N. (2010). Restrukturierung statt Expansion. Entwicklungen im Bereich des nicht-wissenschaftlichen Personals an deutschen Hochschulen. Angenommen zur Veröffentlichung in: Die Hochschule.

Daxner, M. (2010). Understanding Higher Education Management. In J. Huisman, & A. Pausits, Higher Education Management and Development, Compendium for Managers (pp. 13-26). Waxmann.

Ginsberg, B. (2011). The Fall of the Faculty. New York: Oxford University Press.

Gornitzka, A., & Marheim Larsen, I. (2004). Towards Professionalisation? Restructuring of Administrative Work Force in Universities. Higher Education 47/4 , 455-471.

Kehm, B. M. (2012). The Academics and the Higher Education Professionals. Changing Conditions and Changing Approaches of Academic Work. Berlin.

Whitchurch, C. (2008, 05 22). Shifting Identities, Blurring Boundaries: The Changing Roles of Professional Managers in Higher Education. Research and Occasional Papers Series .


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