In a recent piece in Times Higher Education an academic sought to explain why he was leaving the UK, blaming many aspects of our university system but reserving special criticism for administrators:
Then there’s 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…”
An administrative “coup”? Really? It’s been a pretty subtle one if so and the author’s inability 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 is unfortunate to say the least.
This line from the Spectator, supplied from the exotic surroundings of the Oxford senior common room is equally off beam. In noting there are more administrators than there used to be at Oxford (and therefore everywhere) the writer finds it easy to conclude that these administrators 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 from the Spectator, not only are there too many administrators where there should be academics, they are responsible for grade inflation and the decline in academic standards. It’s difficult not to be irritated by this kind of nonsense. But then to return to the original THE piece, we find even more crass commentary on the growth in the number of administrators:
I won’t speculate here on the many reasons why this might be, rather 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 takes something really special to be quite so exceptionally patronising and professionally insulting in the same paragraph. Fortunately, others were equally appalled by this including Charles Knight who sought to stress how much he loved administrators:
I’m just going to come out and say something that many academics would find shameful and perverted – I love my administrators.
I like interacting with them, I like bouncing ideas off them and I appreciate it when they come to me with ideas about how we can get involved with changes to university policy and process. Like any relationship, we have our ups and downs (“did you not read my flowchart on how to simplify that process?”) but I think overall our administrators (and all the services roles) make me a better academic and give our university a stronger and more vibrant culture.
The piece goes on to note the vital role played by administrators in relation to graduation, exam boards, legal and governance matters as well student recruitment and teaching and learning support. He then concludes:
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.
Thank you Charles.
Then there was this ramshackle piece in the Guardian very recently which sought to portray much of the work done by professional services staff as “bullshit jobs”, devoid of value or purpose and in need of elimination in order that academic staff can pursue the real work of the university unimpeded. A spectacularly awful article.
Front of the line
Some 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 often find themselves treated as second class citizens. These administrators are often regarded as expendable and viewed as if they were Victorian servants who generally remain ‘below stairs’. They would also, I am sure, fit into the category of ‘lovely and well-meaning’.
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.
Leaving aside the fact that many professional staff, for example those involved in student recruitment, careers work, counselling, financial advice, academic support, security and library operations 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, ripe for cutting back, is just not credible.
This line would not cut much ice with the academic author of the THE piece nor the Guardian’s organisational behaviour expert who decried “empty administration”, both of whom seem to imagine that the administrators are mainly focused on making life harder for the faculty. However, 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 software updates or washing the windows 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. This is what administrators do.
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.
This is not an administrative coup and anyone who sees administrators as merely as ‘lovely and well-meaning’ but ultimately ineffectual and expendable really does need to think a bit more about how universities really work. We are all pulling in the same direction and administrators are dedicated to enabling institutional success not scuppering it. So please, feel the love, join Charles Knight and celebrate the contribution everyone makes, academics and administrators alike, to our wonderful universities.