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University budget cuts with bureaucratic growth

There is currently gloom in many Australian universities because of the prospect of budget cuts and a claimed need* for financial stringency. In my experience Australian universities have a time-proven simple way of dealing with budgetary tightness – across the board cuts in expenditure applied to both profitable and loss-making university sectors or, as a variant, across the board restrictions on new hiring again applied to both profitable and loss-making sectors of the university.

To those with first-year economics training (or common sense) who might suggest that this is totally daft – how dare you?- it needs to be pointed out that the objective is not efficiency but equity and administrative convenience.  It is also presumably an attempt to avoid making the types of difficult judgements that those receiving huge administrative salaries are paid to make. In short, laziness. Therefore the academic tall poppies must have their heads snapped off as well as the straggling weeds. This has the side effect benefit (from the viewpoint of centralist administrations) of injecting a bit of much-needed discipline and fear into the ranks of the academic rabble. Indeed, the bluntness of the approach suggest exactly the types of skills that the university system’s massive investment in managerial and strategic expertise has generated so far. But far be it for me to criticise – I never have been able to see the “wider picture” that those earning 3-6 times my salary can.  My vision would doubtless improve if you trebled my salary and made me Vice President in Charge of Pissing Uphill into the Wind. That’s me poetically describing the position of academics these days in relation to bureaucratic interferences. Isn’t it nice that in times of trouble I can move freely between economics and English poetry.

The Australian universities are short of funds and, at the same time wasteful.  The bloated bureaucracies now infesting faculty administrations throughout Australia are expensive components of a university – particularly at a time when per capita funding is low and student/staff ratios are at record highs. Yet these recently installed bureaucracies contribute negative value to conventionally measured research and teaching outcomes. Their role is to exhort, to  relay the emails of others, to compel others to record reams of useless data and to write largely unread strategic plans. Moreover, many of these positions seem to be created by the imperatives of government as much as by the empire-building fantasies of intellectually-struggling academic administrators. Many would not get jobs as tutors in the areas they seek to govern – people with absolutely nothing to recommend themselves. The universities would operate more effectively and efficiently without them.  They represent a cost that implies negative gross value.

Excess expenditure on administrators however is selective. Indeed in some areas administration is short-staffed. On the ground some universities are desperately short of staff to handle the real business of assisting students and faculty. The resource waste  lies at the top of this administrative chain – with the people in positions of power – not the low-paid and overworked administrators who deal with real students and real staff.

Another twist is the instinct of more senior administrators to appoint academic nonentities as heads of School and of academic Departments. These appointed people don’t ‘represent’ or ‘profess’ a disciplines – they have no academic values at all and act purely as overseers for their bosses. The bureaucratic target is an intellectually-vacuous, non-communicative nonentity who has never had much power in his or her life but who longs for the opportunity to exercise fantasies.  Puff out your chest, its your big chance in life donkey!

It is a sad picture. Some academics are quitting academe not because of problems of teaching or research per se but through frustration at dealing with misguided bureaucracy and its consequences. No-one wants to coexist in a work situation characterised by lack of logic.  I assume current administrative imperatives are partially government-driven since the situation prevails everywhere. It’s the usual guff -international excellence, strategic vision, need for leadership, facing up to the market etc etc etc. Moreover, it is a situation that causes intense angry feelings among working academics. I have not met an academic who supports the types of administrative investments now being made in the modern university.  Not one. The predominant reaction is one of quiet (and sometimes not so quiet) fury. The effects of wrong-headed bureaucracy on universities is to diminish such institutions and switch them away from their core roles of teaching and doing research.

* Those pushing the financial stringency bandwagon are often loathe to provide facts to back up their assertions.  Can academics who are teaching record student numbers in expanding areas be seen as imposing financial stringency?  Or are they the unsung heroes? You can ‘always do better’ but one effect of pushing stringency in such situations is to produce worse not better outcomes.  This might be referred to as the “getting pissed off” effect.

3 comments to University budget cuts with bureaucratic growth

  • mad wombat

    The sad truth is that if half of these ‘administrators’ were made redundant nobody would notice or miss them. But they never get the much needed sack. Have seen this happening in other enlightened European countries.

  • conrad

    I agree — there are legions of bureaucrats who are entirely worthless. Last time I sat in a Faculty meeting I had to lisen to our DVC of Research (or whatever her position is) and all the stupid worthless programs her and a whole floor of staff are running. All I could think of was that if she was a PhD student, we wouldn’t let run these programs they were so poorly designed. Tgere are also bureaucrats that are supposed to have some purpose that are entirely useless. Our DVC of research has H-index of 3. How depressing.

  • John Brookes

    Well, I work in a uni, as unit coordinator for 1st year students in a school. Each year our enrollments go up, but the amount of money per student goes down. We are continually looking for ways of making teaching more effective for less money. But this can only go on so long.

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