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University administrators

I commented at Core Economics on a post by Paul Frijters on the optimal number of university administrators. Paul’s contention was that we have too many. I don’t disagree with that but think that the question itself needs to be nuanced before it can be effectively posed.

It is more what administrators do in universities than simply their number. Administrators tend to be scarce at the level where real work is done in the universities – teaching, student services, computer services for example – but to proliferate in Faculty offices and Central Administrations where education offices, marketing managers, research managers, Deputy Deans for taking a “pee-uphill-into-the-wind” and the rest live and proliferate. There they perform few useful purposes – how do you centrally “manage research and/or teaching”? – and generally act to reduce the effectiveness of teaching and research though poorly thought out ideas and incessant demands to hold inconsequential meetings that do little more than establish work loads that justify their positions.

The ideas some administrators come up with for reorganisations and curriculum design reduce the effectiveness of universities and lead to significant amounts of academic effort and angst simply in trying to retain any notion of a university’s ideals. Most of the ideas for proposed reforms are presented without evidence to back them up and from an educationally inexperienced perspective. A recurrent desire is to be “distinctive” whereas a more apt approach would be to get it right and not teach degraded nonsense. A phoney business language is used to cloak the absence of any ideals (“consumer orientated”, “KPIs”, “marketing”, “let the market determine”), the exaggerated claims of excellence (“global excellence”, “world standard”), the wasted time at meetings are nausea-inducing for anyone with any sense and encourage academics to leave the profession. (The last point not a joke – people are leaving academe mainly through dissatisfaction with administrators, many others are worn out with the stupidity and remain silently contemptuous).

I think a broad reason for the slow growth in productivity in Australia over the past decade has been the growth of managerialism throughout our society. The MBA society where people can be trained to administer things they have had no experience of – is failing. For example, we now teach courses on general business management to undergraduates whose work experience is limited to flipping hamburgers. But while many firms are promoting the idea of flatter administrative structures virtually all universities are working in the opposite direction of ridding institutions of the last vestiges of collegiality and making them increasingly hierarchical. Universities are being turned into low grade businesses run by administrators without much business sense using a wrong business model.

And the business model is or should be dead.  We have universities because of asymmetric information – those that are educated have less knowledge of particular areas than those seeking an education. Markets fail in such situations because demand cannot sensibly drive supply.  That is why academics should profess and defend a discipline.

Control of the content of university degrees should be put back into the hands of academics who do profess their discipline and removed from Deans and Vice Chancellors. Reforms should work from working academics with experience and knowledge of their areas through to administrators and not the reverse. Redundant administrators could be encouraged to depart or, if that is not feasible, offered prolonged, subsidised business class travel in regions far distant from the university. Deans should ALL do at least some limited teaching and should survive – as they did in the past – with a single assistant and a telephone. Vice-Chancellors should have backgrounds as working academics and should occasionally discuss the issues with current academics and not only Deans.

2 comments to University administrators

  • davidp

    The other phenomenon which I think may also not help (this has been commented on by others) is an increased number of serial administrators (often former academics) who move from one administrative job at one university to another. This may create incentive problems – in terms of favouring short term visible items rather than longer term less visible items. Offsetting this (in some way) is that to the extent that administrators want to go to more prestigious institutions this may encourage innovations appealing to potential employers (this point was made at Core Economics one time)

  • madwombat

    There are similarities here with the health sector where managers have taken over from doctors and nurses with often disastrous effects. One of the main problems for universities is that the senior administrators have forgotten what a university is supposed to do: the creation of knowledge (research) and its dissemination (teaching). This is why it should be imperative for VCs, Deans etc apart from having to teach a bit and get to know students first hand, they should also be expected to carry out decent and valuable research. A good leader needs to inspire and lead by example.

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