Some rather unfortunate comments on higher education and administrators
A few years ago I wrote a piece for Times Higher Education on the problem with the term ‘back office’ and the often casual, unthinking use of it in order to identify a large group of staff who play a key role in the effective running of universities but who are the first to be identified for removal or outsourcing in financially challenging times. More recently I posted here on Registrarism on how administrators always seemed to be first in line for the chop and were seen by some as unnecessary overheads and therefore easily removed. I had hoped this kind of thing had disappeared but two recent articles have, I am sorry to say, proved me wrong.
Jeremy Paxman, writing in the FT, is first to take aim, alerting us to the views of administrators held by our academic colleagues:
There are now 160 or so higher education institutions in the UK, and nearly 195,000 men and women employed teaching and researching in them, which has in turn meant a wholesale growth in the number of managers. They arrive armed with performance-measuring theories, but there is no easy way of assessing the value of huge areas of academic endeavour and large numbers of dons cordially loathe them.
You can learn all you really need to know about higher education from this programme
The remainder of his article is essentially bemoaning the state of the sector from high table and viewing higher education through the rather distorted lens of University Challenge. This splendidly dreadful piece is helpfully dissected by Mike Ratcliffe in this post on his blog More Means Better.
Meanwhile, an even more ill-informed article can be found in The Spectator, in which we again scan the sector from the rarified atmosphere of the Oxford senior common room and it emerges that there are more administrators than there used to be at Oxford (and therefore everywhere) and, essentially, they are unnecessary and, it seems, quite dispensable:
The figures elicited, not for the first time, an exasperated outburst from Peter Oppenheimer, an academic formerly at Christ Church, who vented his spleen in an enjoyable article in the Oxford Magazine. As he observed, ‘A defensible estimate is that at least 500 (of the administrators) are surplus to requirements for the effective running of the university. The corresponding unnecessary annual cost is around £1,500 per Oxford student (all 20,000 of them) per year, plus extensive non-quantifiable academic damage.’ That amounts to £90 million a year for admin — you can buy lots of professors for that.
It gets better:
And the problem of burgeoning bureaucracy helps explain some worrying trends, foremost being a perceptible decline in academic standards over time (it’s evident in grade inflation; there are three times as many Oxford Firsts now as there were 30 years ago)
So there you have it, not only are there too many administrators where there should be academics, they are responsible for grade inflation and the decline in academic standards. Presumably they also have a pretty big hand in global warming and we can probably pin the last world financial crisis on them too if we try hard enough.
It’s difficult not to be extraordinarily irritated by this kind of nonsense.