Working in Higher Education


Tim Kaner, our education sector specialist, reflects on the qualities needed to thrive in a professional services role in Higher Education.

10 qualities needed to thrive

Once described – perhaps with a slight hint of disdain – as ‘administrators’ and even worse ‘non-academic staff’ – those fulfilling professional services roles within the Higher Education sector have become an increasingly important factor in its continued success. The term ‘professional services’ covers everything from facilities management to finance, security to student welfare, communications to careers advice, people to planning and much else besides. These reflections on the attributes which are needed to thrive in a professional services role are drawn from a combination of personal experience and observation of the mix of challenges, frustrations and moments of genuine inspiration colleagues have discovered along the way.

One definition of a university is a ‘community established for the creation and dissemination of knowledge’ and a quick scan through a range of published mission statements (variations on a similar theme in the main) will underline that they see themselves as existing both for the benefit of their students and the enrichment of society. In a role in professional services, the work you are or will be doing – whatever it might be – is in some way contributing to this core purpose.

Yes, the environment in which the sector operates has over recent years compelled these institutions to adapt to the concept of students as customers and to adopt business-like practices in many areas but knowing that you are doing something which is helping to make a positive difference to lives is still a powerful motivating factor.

This said, moving into the Higher Education sector – particularly if you have, like me, spent much of your career working elsewhere – does pose a number of challenges too. It does not suit everyone.

Be ready to be asked if you get the summer off (you don’t). Try to get to grips with the somewhat elusive concept of ‘University time’ – you’ll definitely need to have reserves of patience. Prepare to learn some new and often esoteric jargon. You’ll have many opportunities to learn from and work alongside many dedicated colleagues, which in itself can be inspiring. It is often a genuinely nurturing environment for staff (as well as students). If the sector suits you (and you suit the sector), the skills you have honed elsewhere will stand you in excellent stead.

If you are reading this as a candidate considering making this type of move and wondering if the sector might be the right next step for you, I’m hopeful that you’ll find this list of attributes useful food for thought.

If you are reading this when looking for new talent, especially if you are under pressure to include prior experience of the HE sector as an essential requirement in the job description (and for some roles this might well be the appropriate approach) I hope that to broaden your options and deepen your pool of available talent you’ll begin to look for those who can show that they:

  • Are agile problem solvers with an understanding of how to operate in a highly regulated environment
  • Have the IQ to gain the respect of academic colleagues and the EQ to build collaborative relationships and followship to get things done
  • Are tolerant of process including need to assess risk systematically, with the adaptability, patience and resilience to achieve successful outcomes
  • Possess outstanding communication skills, especially listening
  • Know they need to under promise, over deliver and show evidence of outcomes to build credibility
  • Display a ‘Yes and’ attitude, openness to cooperation and input, and yet are robust enough to address challenges along the way
  • Have the imagination to find a way to get it done despite resource constraints
  • Show TACT (tolerance of ambiguity, complexity and Three Letter acronyms)
  • Have empathy with genuine commitment to inclusion, community, sustainability
  • See the mission as motivation, the values as inspiration not constraints

Do get in touch to let me know if there’s something I’ve missed in this list or which doesn’t reflect your own experience.

I’d love to hear from you and see how Hanover Fox can help.

Tim Kaner – Associate

Tim began his career in advertising before moving client side at Sony Europe. His roles included Director of Marketing Communications and Director of the Marketing Strategy Office.

He moved into the HE sector as Director of Marketing & Communications at the University of Bath, becoming Chief Marketing Officer in 2019. He joined Hanover Fox in 2023.