There were a couple of slightly dispiriting pieces in the Guardian in the last few days on the university sector. The Secret Teacher was bemoaning the effects on students’ motivation of the growth of unconditional offers by many universities. We started to do this at Reading a few years ago but I think that it has been reduced. Most of my colleagues were uneasy about it. It just doesn’t feel right. I can imagine the reaction of our alumni.
Leading organisational theorist, Andre Spicer wrote a pretty excoriating piece in the Guardian on the expansion of empty administration in the university sector. It struck a lot of chords with me. Echoing the Yes, Minister episode with the hospital with no patients, I liked the idea of the all-administrator university.
In the UK, two thirds of universities now have more administrators than they do faculty staff. One higher education policy expert has predicted the birth of the “all-administrative university”… The massive expansion of administration has also fuelled an equally stark expansion of empty activities. These include costly rebranding exercises, compliance with audits and ranking initiatives, struggling with poorly designed IT systems, engaging with strategic initiatives and failed attempts at “visionary leadership”. All the while, faculty are under pressure to show they are producing world-class research, outstanding teaching and are having an impact on wider society. No wonder some faculty complain that they are “drowning in shit”.
Having been through numerous initiatives and re-organisations usually without any rationale ever being proposed – nevermind an outline of the costs and benefits. (Actual supporting evidence is a pipedream), I liked Andre’s simple recommendations
When any new initiative is proposed, faculty need to ask: “Is there any evidence this works? What is the logic behind it? And is it meaningful to staff and students?” Answering these three simple questions is likely to cut back empty administration substantially.
I’ve seen examples where departments in universities can become complacent and clubbish. It’s about getting the right cost-benefit balance to ensure that academic staff are responsibly and competently autonomous using appropriate management and effective, yes they’re important, administrative structures. I’d tend to agree with Andre Spicer that the cost benefit of a lot of the current quality assurance structures and senior management initiativitis is biased heavily towards costs.
Let the new term begin!