I’ve written here before on several occasions about the place of administrators (often called professional services staff but also, unfortunately, ‘support staff’ or ‘non-academic staff’) in UK universities. Much of this commentary has been about the role of professional services and the nature of their contribution to institutional success together with a general defence of value and some modest requests for recognition.
There is still though, sadly, in some parts of HE a division between academics and administrators, and we do sometimes see evidence of an ‘us and them’ culture (despite the enormous persuasive power of a couple of my earlier blogs on Wonkhe).
The academic “at”
In a recent post here on some new research on the career trajectories and the crossing of academic/administrative boundaries at the level of senior professional leaders the ways in which professional services and academics engaged was also noted. One comment in the report highlighted a distinctive point:
But as one of my academic colleagues observed this demonstrates a key point about what he describes as “the ultimate source of tension between academics and professional services.”
He went on to note:
This seems to me to be a very good point. It is a two way street and, in order to do their best work, most academic staff need to focus on their discipline. Professional services staff have to recognise this, work with it and embrace it as fundamental to institutional success.
But I fear that there is still evidence of the ‘us and them’ culture which leads to administrators sometimes being targeted as being ‘first for the chop’ in times of financial crisis. It also sees professional services staff sometimes being viewed as if they were servants rather than as genuine colleagues.
Proof of work
I had hoped this kind of attitude was dying out but it does seem that it can still be found in some parts of higher education as this latest exciting innovation demonstrates.
It seems there is a new university which intends not only to reduce administrative costs but apparently dispense with university administrators altogether. As David Kernohan recently reported here on Wonkhe, Woolf University is intending to exploit cutting edge blockchain technology to reinvent the university for the future:
Woolf is meant to disrupt the economics of higher education and provide new opportunities for both students and academics. Blockchains with smart contracts can automate administrative processes by using the WOOLF utility token, thereby reducing overhead costs. Students can study with lower tuition, and academics can secure their salaries. Woolf will also seek to partner with existing universities, helping them to implement aspects of the platform, reduce their administrative costs, and free up resources for their core educational mission.
Blockchain has offered many a panacea of late and this one surely is among the least credible. As Kernohan notes:
Startlingly, one stated end goal is to employ zero administrators, with processes managed by “smart contracts” – self-actualising units of code that interlink to record student progression and release payment to academics. And, although an individual Woolf college may choose to subject itself to the rigour of joining the regulated higher education sector in any given jurisdiction, this is by no means required in all cases.
As he goes on to observe, the idea that even the lightest touch intervention by the new Office for Students (or indeed many other aspects of university operations including quality assurance, student recruitment, student welfare or administration) could somehow be handled in an entirely automated way is perhaps a tad optimistic.
Nevertheless, this is very much in the vein of similar forays against administrators such as this tirade which I quoted here a while back
Then there is the administration. Leaving aside the widely pilloried and Sisyphean administrative exercises known as the research excellence framework and now the teaching excellence framework (TEF), to put it simply we have in recent times witnessed an administrative coup in UK academia. In an article focusing on the University of Oxford but painting a picture that will be familiar to most academics, The Spectator wrote that the “university’s central administrative staff is now almost three times what it was 15 years ago. There was no similar increase in full-time academic staff, the people who teach students or do research…”
Even allowing for the absurd hyperbole of an ‘administrative coup’ the author of this piece was clearly unable to distinguish between externally imposed regulation and assessment and the administrative support required to enable universities to deal with this bureaucracy, protect academics from its worst excesses as well as helping keeping everything else moving. And the Spectator item goes even further:
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).
There it is then, not only are there too many administrators where there should be academics, they are responsible for grade inflation and the decline in academic standards. Back to the original THE piece I quoted which really ices the cake:
I’ll merely point out that an increase in administrators – lovely and well-meaning as most of them are as individuals – naturally does not do what you might naively expect, ie, take care of the administration so that academics can focus on academic work. No, instead it breeds ever more complex administrative mazes that are not just difficult to navigate but are de facto becoming the main part of the job. Kafkaesque would not be pushing it too far by any means.
It really is a special achievement to be quite so exceptionally patronising and professionally insulting in so few words. Fortunately, others were equally appalled by this including the very lovely Charles Knight who sought to stress how much he loved administrators and noted the vital role they played in many aspects of university life before concluding:
The real reason I love my administrators, however, is that I truly have never felt that at Edge Hill University there is this hard divide between academics and administrators – and that doesn’t just refer to processes; it’s about culture and values.
Stepping out of the “back office”
Many years ago I wrote a piece for Times Higher Education on my unhappiness about the term “back office” and the often casual, unthinking use of it in order to identify a large group of professional services staff who play a vital role in the effective running of universities but who often find themselves treated as second class citizens. These administrators are often viewed as if they were Victorian servants who generally remain below stairs, undoubtedly fit into the category of “lovely and well-meaning” and are often targeted first when savings are required.
Leaving aside the fact that many professional staff are unequivocally front-line, the idea that the other staff who help the institution function and who support academic staff in their teaching and research are merely unnecessary overheads is just not right. If academic staff are to deliver on their core responsibilities for teaching and research it is essential that all the services they and the university need are provided efficiently and effectively. There is not much point in hiring a world-leading scholar if she has to do her all her own photocopying, spend a day a week sorting out visa issues or overseeing and renegotiating software service contracts because there aren’t any other staff to do this work. These services are required and staff are needed to do this work to ensure academics are not unnecessarily distracted from their primary duties. Although provision of such services is not in itself sufficient for institutional success, it is hugely important for creating and sustaining an environment where the best-quality teaching and research can be delivered.
“Barbarous, semiliterate prose”
For some though, this argument doesn’t cut much ice. Terry Eagleton recently penned a piece for the Chronicle in which he lambasted many aspects of university management, and accused HE leaders of conducting a technology-driven purge of books and paper. In his view institutions have a
Byzantine bureaucracy, junior professors who are little but dogsbodies, and vice chancellors who behave as though they are running General Motors. Senior professors are now senior managers, and the air is thick with talk of auditing and accountancy. Books — those troglodytic, drearily pretechnological phenomena — are increasingly frowned upon. At least one British university has restricted the number of bookshelves professors may have in their offices in order to discourage “personal libraries.” Wastepaper baskets are becoming as rare as Tea Party intellectuals, since paper is now passé.
Then he goes further, much further:
Philistine administrators plaster the campus with mindless logos and issue their edicts in barbarous, semiliterate prose.
Nice. I wonder what he thinks about the Woolf University concept.
Anyone who sees administrators either as merely lovely and well-meaning or as semi-literate philistines but in either case ultimately expendable really does need to think a bit more about how universities really work. We are all pulling in the same direction and administrators, whatever their roles, are dedicated to enabling institutional success not preventing it.
Dispensing with administrative staff altogether as those enthusiastic blockchain disruptors envisage goes well beyond even this of course, but we do need to move away from the now very dated ‘us and them’ attitude and that requires a different way of looking at how we all work together in our universities.