Administrators are not poor relations of professors but highly qualified professionals, says Stephen Pritchard
Until recently, universities often relied on academics for much of their administration and management. Some moved into management full- time. Others added administration to their existing teaching roles. Now some universities employ several thousand in non-teaching roles, from secretarial work to marketing, and university managers are becoming more professional in their approach.

Administrators have been placing more emphasis on their own professional development since the Sixties, when universities went through their last big period of expansion. There is a greater emphasis on training, and more specialists are being hired into areas such as personnel or overseas liaison.

Universities are also formalising recruitment into their own professional administrative cadre, which supports the academic staff. Like the Civil Service, university posts boast obscure titles. Few undergraduates will have dealt with a registrar, the university equivalent of the Cabinet Secretary, much less found out what he or she actually does.

The odd names hide the reality of a profession that is almost exclusively graduate, and offers good prospects for students interested in management in the public sector. Many of the skills are similar to those needed by Whitehall or the NHS. The main difference is that unlike central government, universities are independent bodies and decide their own recruitment policies.

Competition for permanent posts is frequently fierce. Recruiters normally demand a first or upper second class degree, as well as the type of extracurricular achievement more commonly associated with high-fliers in finance or industry. Administrative careers follow the academic pay scale - below typical salaries in industry or the City - but this does not seem to be a deterrent.

John Lathan, assistant director of international relations at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology (Umist), is typical of the modern administrator. He is neither a former academic nor a retired serviceman. He graduated from Sheffield in 1990 with a degree in history, and started to train as an insurance underwriter in London, but quickly found that he disliked the work, and left after 14 months. He travelled for six months, then decided to look for work outside London. Lathan was interested in education, but did not want to teach; the careers service at Sheffield suggested that he should look at university administration.

Lathan's first post at Umist was as undergraduate admissions officer, dealing with applications and liaising with the Universities Central Admissions Service (Ucas). His current post deals with recruiting overseas students - Umist runs a large number of specialist postgraduate courses with a high percentage of visiting students - and handles problems that arise during their time in Manchester.

According to Paddy Stephenson, Umist's registrar and Lathan's manager, Lathan's career to date is fairly typical. He stresses that there is a genuine career structure, with an emphasis on professional development. "There is certainly a career in administration," he says. "You can enter as a graduate administrative assistant, and aspire to be a bursar or registrar."

Most university vacancies are advertised in the press as and when staff are needed. But at Cardiff University, they are pioneering an alternative approach. Cardiff is a larger college, employing some 1,000 academic and 1,500 support staff. In 1992, the university introduced a graduate training scheme for its administrators, along the lines of programmes in industry.

Anna Coates, 26, is one of the trainees. She works in the examinations department, where her responsibilities include liaison with the university's external examiners and making arrangements for students with special needs to sit exams. Her previous post was in the PR and student marketing section.

Coates studied hotel and institutional management at Cardiff, graduating with a 2.1. After the course, she decided that she did not want to work in hotels. In addition to universities, she applied to NHS trusts for trainee management positions.

Coates has a permanent contract with Cardiff, although it is up to her to apply for actual posts as they are advertised. The university is flexible about her choice, but Coates thinks she would like to work next in an academic department, not least because of the greater level of contact with students.

She agrees that administrators form something of a hidden army in universities; undergraduates do not always understand the complexity of her work. "Most students do not realise that most people who work in central administration are graduates," she says. Undergraduates sometimes patronise administrators, because they think they are merely clerical staff.

At the other end of the spectrum, Coates relishes the challenge of working with academics. "You are working with highly intelligent people, so you have to be on the ball," she says. Academics, she warns, are adept at finding a way round the tightest rules.

Coates says the unique environment of universities is what makes a career in administration worthwhile. "People here are welcoming, friendly and interested in you," she says.