Posted tagged ‘university administration’

The burdens of university administration

March 4, 2011

When in 1991 I took over as Dean of the Law School of the University of Hull in England, one of the first things I decided to tackle was the proliferation of administrative functions for academics. Pretty well every lecturer and professor had traditionally been given some non-academic task, ranging from managing student admissions to servicing certain committees. Furthermore, some of them – conscientious people – were particularly anxious to ensure that they performed the role satisfactorily, and so had begun to spend more time on this than on their teaching and research functions. A side-effect of all this was that many of the School’s academic activities had become seriously bureaucratised. All of this was further incentivised by an academic career development framework that gave special recognition to time spent on administrative work.

My solution to this problem was to appoint a School administrator, someone with a full-time task of managing the administrative tasks and functions and to streamline them so they would not overwhelm the School’s academic activities. Other Schools in the university followed suit, and before you could say ‘committee meeting’ someone had pointed out that the university was recruiting administrators at a faster pace than academics.

It would not be unfair to say that most universities have struggled and continue to struggle to find the most appropriate way of handling administrative and non-academic middle management functions. A university’s mission is most obviously associated with lecturers and professors, but to facilitate and support their work requires the effective conduct of administration. But who should do this, and how? One university I visited a few years ago had developed a policy of encouraging academics who were so minded to transfer to vacant administration posts, in the belief that they would have a better idea of how to manage these roles in a way that supported the primary mission. Indeed it would be fair to say that some of the most gifted university administrators I have worked with have been former academics. But then again, some of these transferred academics have found the relationships with their former lecturing colleagues to be particularly difficult as they were seen as having ‘crossed over’ to the other side.

It seems to me that universities are now far too complex to be administered by academics on a part-time basis, and the professionalisation of certain university management functions was not only inevitable but right. Complex roles like human resources cannot be undertaken effectively by what are really gifted amateurs. But when academics complain about creeping managerialism brought about by the proliferation of administrative appointments – as happens regularly, a recent example being in the University of Kentucky – what they are objecting to is often an apparent redirection of mission and vision away from the frontline intellectual and scholarly values. A result is a growing hostility of academics towards administrators, and vice versa.

There is no viable alternative to the professional administration and  management of organisational functions in a university. But this may go wrong if the organisation does not have a clearly designed and jointly owned strategic direction that is adopted by the administrative staff also. So the answer to any perceived imbalance of functions is not to pillory administrators, but to ensure that they share with the academic community the task of charting the way forward for the university. It means reducing the distance between both groups and ensuring that the university does not have a system of separate castes. Most universities still get that wrong, and it is time to take the issue seriously.

Administrative flab?

February 8, 2010

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.

Taking decisions…

July 12, 2008

Whenever I take part in a discussion about how (and how efficiently) decisions are taken in the world of higher education, I tend to refer people to what I think is the very best book on the subject: Microcosmographia Academica, published in 1908 by Cambridge Professor F.M. Cornford. It was written as a series of satirical observations about university decision-making – and while it was intended to describe the University of Cambridge around the beginning of the last century, it is remarkably accurate today. Cornford, in a sub-title- dedicated it to the ‘young academic politician’.

The main premise of the book is that academic institutions have elaborate systems for stopping all sensible decision-making – because there is only one argument for taking a decision (that it is the right thing to do), but dozens that can be employed against even the most wonderful proposal. He then lists (largely tongue in cheek) some of these arguments, and they are all easily recognised today.

Here are some:

  • The Principle of the Wedge is that you should not act justly now for fear of raising expectations that you may act still more justly in the future — expectations which you are afraid you will not have the courage to satisfy.
  • The Principle of the Dangerous Precedent is that you should not now do an admittedly right action for fear you, or your equally timid successors, should not have the courage to do right in some future case. Every public action which is not customary, either is wrong, or, if it is right, is a dangerous precedent. It follows that nothing should ever be done for the first time.
  • Another argument is that ‘the Time is not Ripe’. The Principle of Unripe Time is that people should not do at the present moment what they think right at that moment, because the moment at which they think it right has not yet arrived.

However, for all that we can recognise many committee debates here, it is worth saying that universities have become much better at streamlining their procedures and acting rationally, and have become much more capable of sensible reform. And it is also fair to recognise that many academics fear that reform really means removing the capacity of faculty and staff to have a genuine input in decision-making processes; and so it is important that such inputs are encouraged and facilitated. But we also need to ensure that our stakeholders are able to recognise that we behave in an efficient manner and that decisions are taken in a timely way. Reading Cornford’s book may help us to achieve that aim.