Administrative flab?

According to the Sunday Independent newspaper (and you have to scroll down the article a bit), the Minister for Education and Science has ‘warned third-level colleges and institutes of technology that they must cut out the administrative flab and slim down in the same manner as their second and primary level educational counterparts’, and that university presidents must ‘run their institutions more efficiently.’

There is of course an important point to be made and repeated wherever possible: that the core activities of universities are teaching and scholarship, and that this should be reflected in how they are organized and staffed. But it also needs to be stated clearly that efficient administration is a necessary part of our business, and that academics should where possible be allowed to focus on academic activities rather than be diverted into administration. The presence of administrative staff in universities is not of itself a sign of inefficient management, and the ideal model of a higher education institution is not one where there are only academics. In the same way, and in the interests of proper community building on the campus, administrative and support and technical employees should be equal, and equally respected, members of staff.

The Minister’s statement (and it is similar to what I have heard him, and others, say orally) suggests at least by strong implication that Irish universities spend more of their resources on administrators than is appropriate. This is also a view not backed by any of the available evidence. In terms of international benchmarks, a much smaller percentage of staff in Irish universities – whether measured in headcount or in salary costs – works in administration than is the case in any comparable OECD country. As we also well know by now, Irish universities have managed to produce well respected graduates and to carry out world class research on the basis of a unit of resource that is substantially lower than in any other western country. To suggest, therefore, that Irish universities are inefficient is highly questionable.

But the Minister has used a different benchmark: he has compared universities with primary and secondary schools. But however much we should admire schools in the Irish educational system, it would be extraordinary to suggest that the levels of administration that are required for them should somehow set a target for third level. Universities and third level colleges operate in a wholly different way, with completely different administrative requirements.

I am concerned that this is another statement appearing to criticise the universities without any evidence to back it up, and indeed with the available evidence strongly pointing the other way; and that statements such as this may prove to be divisive between different categories of staff within the institutions. And it also represents another statement that pre-empts a review process that the Minister has himself set up – this time the so-called ‘forensic audit’.

As I have noted before, there is undoubtedly scope for reform and change in Irish higher education. But the likelihood of this being introduced in a reasonable and effective manner declines when statements are put about that undermine reviews already under way and where these statements are not based on any available evidence. Finally, if the Minister believes he has reason to be genuinely concerned about this he might first have a meeting with us to outline his concerns and the evidence on which they are based; reform is not about shouting unfounded criticisms through a megaphone.

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3 Comments on “Administrative flab?”

  1. Perry Share Says:

    I am currently running an academic department in an IoT with 1250+ students and c.100 staff. The administrative support for this is, at the moment, on the most generous assessment, 0.5 of a grade 3 administrator. I wonder which part of this excessively flabby operation I am supposed to excise?

  2. My previous unit was in a similar situation, with ~35 permanent staff, ~35 postdocs, ~200 full-time PhD students, and about 3 or 4 support staff. Meaning, all academics had to do all administrative work themselves—a complete waste of their time.

    In my new institution, as well as in my previous ones, every full professor or head of a research group has a full-time admin, and other associate/assistant professors are given support comparable to the level of research funds they bring in (e.g., $100K/year = 1 admin unit).

    Guess where I enjoy working more, and where I get more research and teaching done?


  3. cormac Says:

    The real pity is that comments like these by the current minister go unchallenged in the media. The only ‘analysis’ one sees is either by equally uninformed political commentators or by in-house education ‘experts’ in The Irish Times.

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