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Why 'administrative swelling' undermines the academic effectiveness of the University

More and more teachers are frustrated by the weight of expense management, administration and bureaucracy, which distracts them from their main task of teaching and research.

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Why 'administrative swelling' undermines the academic effectiveness of the University

More and more teachers are frustrated by the weight of expense management, administration and bureaucracy, which distracts them from their main task of teaching and research. Superfluous staff and procedures can end up absorbing resources, slowing achievement and undermining the role of universities. The pattern is repeated everywhere, and thus studies from Norway, the Netherlands, Germany, the United States, France or Australia point to a significant growth in managerial, professional and administrative tasks over the last few decades, compared to academic work.

Timothy Devinney remembers with horror the moment he was shown a huge spreadsheet with the "key performance indicators" of the university department where he worked. He had 110 targets, each with a person assigned to oversee it.

"Only two matter: study and pedagogy. Any sensible organization would look at administration costs and cut them," explains Professor Devinney, now head of the international management department at Alliance Manchester business school.

He recently argued in a blog that university staff should come from larger universities to counter administrative overload, just as private sector conglomerates have also been splintered over the last few years. "Basically, universities are stifling the capabilities of their own staff."

Their concern reflects the frustration of many UK teachers with the expense, administration and bureaucracy that distract them from their main task of teaching and research. Superfluous staff and procedures can end up absorbing resources, slowing achievement and undermining the role of universities.

Although criticism of the excess of middle management and paperwork is common among employees of almost any organization, universities are increasingly concerned about a phenomenon that we could call "academic inflammation", and that raises fears of the loss of purpose and functioning of higher education.

"Academic staff have lost power," says Alison Wolf, professor of public sector management at King's College London. "As you get bigger, the bureaucracy is stretched. It's very worrying. Of course, universities need good administrators and non-academic staff, but their essence is quality teaching and research. We have to increase administrative efficiency and cut the expense that this work implies in salaries. The problem is that we are going to end up seeing the opposite.

In his analysis Managers and Academics in a Centralized Sector: New Staffing Trends in UK Higher Education, published late last year with Andrew Jenkins, Associate Professor at the Institute for Social Research at University College London, Wolf makes a tracking the disproportionate growth in the number of administrators and non-academic staff in UK universities. This has come about because academic staff have been forced to combine teaching with research, and administrative support staff have been added.

One of the reasons for this phenomenon has been the multiplication of official reporting, accountability and regulatory requirements. Wolf explains that the creation of the UK Higher Education Quality Assurance Agency in 1997, to ensure academic quality, was a turning point, requiring greater scrutiny, despite a lack of "expertise on matter", and the rectors accepted it without much resistance. "We've seen the growth of government and very strict regulations," he concludes.

A second factor is the expansion of the higher education sector, with more university students and - especially in English-speaking countries - an increasingly competitive search for foreign students willing to pay more. This has translated into a multiplication of functions (such as recruiting and marketing), support services for the changing needs of a more diverse student body, and more attention to the facilities and satisfaction of students, who have become "consumers". most demanding teaching.

Ronald Daniels, president of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, argues: "Without a doubt, there was a push for growth in services: research methods, mental health for students, diversity-related functions. All of those were much smaller departments." small when I started, and now they are much larger.

However, Daniels argues for the growth of these specialized functions along with that of academic positions, at least when applied correctly. "Students demand these help services, and when you see that they have important problems of anxiety or attention deficit disorder, it is better that they do not receive help from poorly trained people, but from professionals who know how to manage these problems," he maintains.

Nic Beech, Vice-Chancellor of Middlesex University and President of the British Academy of Management, agrees. "We tend to focus a lot on regulations and requirements. That comes from government agencies and from funders. It's almost inevitable, with the growth of the technocratic nature of the organization: along with teaching, training and research, you have to have a technical team, health and safety personnel, buildings and facilities. University finances get very complicated, so you need a professional approach."

Another fundamental point is that a good teacher is not always an enthusiastic or efficient administrator. They sometimes reluctantly take on “management” roles, preferring to focus on their research or teaching rather than managing other people in their department, let alone other responsibilities such as recruiting, human resources, or technology.

Beech argues that university administration would improve if nonacademic staff were more empowered. "If you segregate them, and treat them as teachers' servants, it becomes very difficult for them to be professionals and provide added value. You build a wall of separation."

Devinney agrees with this view, pointing to a closer relationship with faculty at certain US universities, where top managers are often former students who know the institution well and deeply; or from Australia, where he himself advocated offering employees the opportunity to receive classes for free, so that his mission would be more shared.

Daniels says that it is essential to ensure the participation and consultation of academic staff, to gain their support in directing certain resources to managerial and administrative functions. "Above all, you have to be willing to be very transparent with teaching staff about how you are spending money and why, to see the relationship between the legitimate demands of a University, and how you respond to them,"

But with a landscape of significant overhead and cumbersome procedures, others insist that academics should question and resist more often. In his analysis, Wolf sees much less scrutiny in the hiring of non-academic staff than in the hiring of academic staff, a circumstance he attributes to "mismanagement and classic bureaucratic stuff." Thus, the author considers that the governing councils of the universities should better monitor the hiring of non-academic staff.

As Beech suggests, this requires academics to be willing to take more risks, and to reject the growth of bureaucratic procedures. “In the commercial companies I have spent time with, there are things that get left behind, when it is understood that the quality is already adequate. Their approach to risk is often more subtle than that of the universities; They are more willing to take more risks.

© The Financial Times Limited [2022]. All rights reserved. FT and Financial Times are registered trademarks of Financial Times Limited. Redistribution, copying or modification is prohibited. EXPANSIÓN is solely responsible for this translation and Financial Times Limited is not responsible for its accuracy.

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