Tuesday, 10 November 2015

The Rise of the Para-Academic

David Mills and a room of para-academics
The annual conference of the Association of Research Managers and Administrators took place in Brighton at the beginning of June. The event, and the association itself, has mushroomed in recent years. I’ve written before about this exponential growth. At the turn of the millennium ARMA’s forerunner, RAGnet, had 350 members; fifteen years later the Brighton conference, which was attended by only a fraction of ARMA's membership, had 750 delegates.

Part of me is proud of this, and part of me is shocked. Who are all these people? Seeing the delegate list was a moment of existential angst. Why do we exist? Who are we? What are we? The sociologist Laurie Taylor recently wrote in the Times Higher Education about this new ‘tribe’: "Managers and administrators who once had a mute background presence are now a noisy part of the daily life of every scholar. Their ranks continue to swell even though the UK is already one of the very few countries in the world where non-academic staff already outnumber academics."

I can understand the bemusement, bordering on fear and disgust, that Taylor articulates. The idea of management is antithetical to the ideological freedom that academia represents. "Administrators [can never] hope for any degree of acceptance by academics as long as their roles might be characterised as management. The very word 'manager' arouses academic hackles in much the same manner that the term 'capitalist' stiffened the sinews of a Marxist."

Taylor finished his piece by suggesting that administrators should recognise themselves "as support staff to those upon the academic stage, as producers, property masters, scene setters, audience providers". I know that this raised the hackles of some of my colleagues, but I have always considered the concept of ‘support’ to be fundamental to what we do. Our role is not, as Macbeth suggested, to fret and strut our hour upon the stage, but to ensure that academics are able to do so, freed from the issues and demands of bureaucracy.

This sense of support, of managers and administrators working together with academics to help them fulfil their potential, was backed up by research reported in the Times Higher Education. An analysis from Portugal found that applications that had received only ‘basic’ or ‘intermediate’ support from grant managers had an average success rate of 18.9 per cent; those that had received ‘advanced’ support had a success rate of 61 per cent.

But what does it take to provide such support? Back at the ARMA conference, the first session I attended tried to identify the skills that ‘research facilitators’ needed. David Mills, of the education department at the University of Oxford, described this role as "para-academic" or "blended professional". Many facilitators had worked as academics themselves and therefore understood the pressures and difficulties involved, but this wasn’t crucial. Instead, diplomacy, honesty, persuasiveness and confidence kept coming up throughout the session. A successful ‘para-academic’ needed to "support [an applicant’s] question without pushing it out of shape too much", and "be the midwife to their baby".

Secondary skills included the ability to make connections, to manage projects, to communicate well (verbally and in writing), to interpret complex guidelines, to coach, to know when to step back and be 'invisible’, to work at both a micro and a macro level, and to build up a strong knowledge base. Moreover, facilitators needed to be able to influence individuals and institutions, and to be strong advocates of research.

Diplomat, strategist, advocate, interpreter, writer, midwife, coach. When described thus, it’s a little more difficult to agree with Taylor’s view and a little easier to understand how the stark results of the Portuguese analysis were achieved. The tribe of facilitators can and should prevent their academic colleagues from selling themselves short, help them to plan and frame their proposals properly, and hold them back from rushing at deadlines. By doing so they are providing the ultimate support, stopping academics from delivering applications that are, to quote Macbeth again, little more than "a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing".

This article first appeared in Funding Insight in May 2015 and is reproduced with kind permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit www.researchprofessional.com

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