Are universities suffering from management bloat?

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Timothy Devinney recalls his horror when shown a sprawling spreadsheet of “key performance indicators” from the university department where he once worked. It included 110 targets, each with personnel assigned to guard them.

“There are only two that matter: erudition and pedagogy. Any sensible organization would look at administrative overhead and try to cut it out,” says Professor Devinney, currently Director of International Affairs at Alliance Manchester Business School.

He argued in a recent blog post that faculties should be separated from larger universities to counter the focus on sprawling operations, just as private sector conglomerates have been broken up in recent years. “Universities essentially strangle the abilities of the people within them.”

His concern reflects the frustrations of many working in UK higher education and beyond that overhead, administration and bureaucracy are becoming a distraction from their central purpose of teaching and research. . Additional staff and procedures risk absorbing resources, slowing down execution and undermining the functioning of universities.

While criticism of expanding middle management ranks and excessive bureaucracy is familiar among employees of almost any organization, concern is mounting in universities about the distinctive phenomenon of what one might call it “school bloat,” which raises fears of undermining the very purpose and functioning of higher education.

Timothy Devinney: “Much of the administration is never challenged” © Benjamin Statham/FT

“Academics have lost power,” says Alison Wolf, professor of public sector management at King’s College London. “As you get bigger, you get more bureaucratic. This is a serious concern. Of course, universities need good administrators and non-academic staff, but what they want is high quality teaching and research. We must increase administrative efficiency and reduce its share in the wage bill. The risk is that we see the opposite.

In his analysis,Managers and academics in a centralizing sector: New Models of Higher Education Staffing in the UK”, published late last year with Andrew Jenkins, Associate Professor at the Social Research Institute at University College London, she followed the disproportionate expansion in the number of executives and non-academic professionals in UK universities. This has come at the expense of academic roles combining teaching and research, as well as administrative support staff.

The trend is similar elsewhere: the authors cite studies from Norway, the Netherlands, Germany, the United States, France and Australia which all describe greater growth in recent decades in the number of jobs management, professionals and senior executives compared to those of traditional academics. .

One of the reasons for this is increased reporting, accountability and compliance related to government requirements. Wolf says the creation of the UK’s Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education in 1997 to monitor academic quality was a turning point, with demands for review despite ‘lack of subject matter expertise’ – and which met with little resistance from the vice-chancellors. “We have seen increasing managerialism and very heavy regulation,” she adds.

A second factor is the expansion of the higher education sector, with more domestic students attending university and, especially in the English-speaking world, an ever more competitive search for higher-paying foreign students. This has led to the growth of functions such as recruiting and marketing; support services for the changing needs of a more diverse clientele; and more emphasis on facilities and student satisfaction, as they have become more demanding ‘consumers’ of education.

Ronald Daniels, president of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, said, “There is no doubt that there are pressures for growth in services: research compliance, mental health services for students, counseling, functions around of diversity. They were relatively small offices when I started and now they are much bigger.

But he advocates the expansion of these specialist roles alongside academic positions – at least when they are well implemented. “Students express a demand for these support services, and when you see that they have serious problems with anxiety or attention deficit disorder, it is better that they are not supported by poorly trained people. but by professionals who can handle it well,” he said. said.

Nic Beech, vice-chancellor of Middlesex University and president of the British Academy of Management, agrees. “We tend to be very compliance and regulatory oriented. This comes from government agencies and donors. It is almost a fatality with the rise of the technocracy of the organization: alongside education, training and research, it is necessary to have a technical team, health and safety, goods and equipment. University finances have become quite complicated, so you need a professional organization.

Yet he suggests that many academics remain focused on their own individual work and see themselves as “heroic leaders,” while failing to recognize the value of technicians and other support staff. “It’s easier to find a younger version of me who is quite critical of the system,” he says. “But I have changed. I often think back to those key events that changed my career, like getting a big grant, and I think differently. I think of some of those back office workers and wonder now if I would have gotten the grant without them. »

Another fundamental problem is that good academics are not always enthusiastic or effective managers. They sometimes take on “administration” reluctantly and prefer to focus on their own research or teaching rather than managing others in their department – let alone engaging in broader responsibilities such as handover. markets, human resources or technology.

Beech argues that improved academic management would come from greater accountability and involvement of non-academic staff. “If they are separated and seen as servants of academics, then it is very difficult for them to be professional and add value. You have built a ditch.

Devinney agrees, pointing to a closer relationship with scholars at some universities in the United States, where senior administrators are themselves often alumni with deep and extensive knowledge of their institutions; or even in Australia, where he recommended offering employees the possibility of taking courses for free to involve them more closely in a common mission.

Daniels says engaging and consulting with academics to gain their support to shift resources into management and administration roles is critical. “First and foremost, you need to be prepared to be very transparent with professors about where you’re spending extra dollars and why, so they see a connection between the legitimate demands a university faces and how it answer it.”

But amid heavy overhead and cumbersome procedures, others stress that academic leaders should question and resist more often. Wolf observed far less scrutiny of non-academic hiring than of academic hiring in her analysis, which she attributed to “mismanagement and classic bureaucratic creep.” She argues that university boards should take a closer look at policies for recruiting non-academic staff.

“Much of the administration is never challenged,” says Devinney, who argues that if universities are held accountable for their teaching, research and student satisfaction, they should also analyze in more detail their administrative overhead. “There are no solar clauses. Once put in place, these requirements simply exist.

As Beech suggests, this requires academics to be willing to take greater risks and push back spiraling compliance procedures. “In the business ventures I’ve spent time with, they’re good at leaving things out and deciding when something’s good enough. Their approach to risk is often more subtle than at university: they [corporates] take more risks.

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