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How come our cash-strapped universities can afford so many administrators?

As academic staff suffer and ever more power is granted to donors, one slice of university staff seem to be doing very well

6 June 2015

9:00 AM

6 June 2015

9:00 AM

It took Oxford 40 years to catch up with Cambridge in appointing a woman vice-chancellor, but Louise Richardson — ex-St Andrews, Irish, Catholic, terrorism expert — is to take over from the chemist Andrew Hamilton. He is leaving early to head New York University for an eye-watering £950,000 a year. His successor will inherit a more modest but still whopping £442,000 a year. That’s what happens when a university is run like a biggish corporation — the head is paid like a chief executive. (A professor gets around £65,000 a year: once, Louise Richardson would have been on something similar.)

Chief of the problems Richardson has to get to grips with, once the ceremonial is done, is the extent to which the real business of the university — teaching and research — is being subordinated to its bureaucracy.

Remember the lesser-known bit of Parkinson’s Law — that bureaucracy expands in inverse proportion to its usefulness? The number of Navy bureaucrats rose after the first world war, Parkinson noted, just as the number of warships went down. That’s more or less how Oxford University is looking now — actually, how it’s looked for some time.

The university’s central administrative staff is now almost three times what it was 15 years ago. There was no similar increase in full-time academic staff, the people who teach students or do research, who belong to the faculties and colleges (Oxford, like Cambridge, is made up of colleges, with academics divided between subject faculties; the university itself is a sort of covering carapace and a funnel for funding). In other words, a university that used, in its medieval way, to be a model of self-governance, run by a Congregation of dons — one member, one vote — is increasingly being run by the equivalent of the civil service.


The figures elicited, not for the first time, an exasperated outburst from Peter Oppenheimer, an academic formerly at Christ Church, who vented his spleen in an enjoyable article in the Oxford Magazine. As he observed, ‘A defensible estimate is that at least 500 (of the administrators) are surplus to requirements for the effective running of the university. The corresponding unnecessary annual cost is around £1,500 per Oxford student (all 20,000 of them) per year, plus extensive non-quantifiable academic damage.’ That amounts to £90 million a year for admin — you can buy lots of professors for that. Louise Richardson has the reputation as a cracking teacher from her time at Harvard; the effect of all this shouldn’t be lost on her.

This hasn’t all happened at once. It’s been going on for at least 15 years and is by no means solely a British phenomenon — nor an Oxford one (Iain Pears is another academic who’s sounded off on the empire-building management, in respect of King’s College London). One reason for dwelling on the issue is that it shows how spending cuts often work — falling first on the people for whom a service is intended, here, students and academics, and, some way after, on management. And the problem of burgeoning bureaucracy helps explain some worrying trends, foremost being a perceptible decline in academic standards over time (it’s evident in grade inflation; there are three times as many Oxford Firsts now as there were 30 years ago) and — a lesser problem — the way private donors to the university are losing the run of themselves.

You don’t have to dig deep to find academics enraged at how administration flourishes while faculties are cash-strapped. Robin Lane Fox, New College’s ebullient former classics fellow, observes: ‘The vice-chancellor is paid three times what the Prime Minister gets. Layers of managers have proliferated. May I recommend the great historian A.H.M. Jones in The Later Roman Empire, on why the Roman Empire declined? Too many “idle mouths”. After imposing its central costs, the university now tells most of the faculties they are so far in “deficit” that the university cannot pay towards any new appointment and in case of a retirement or promotion it is for fundraisers and colleges to bridge the “gap” — i.e. temps can teach the undergraduates meanwhile and anyway the undergraduates should apparently be paying up to £15,000 a year for the non-privilege.’

Which brings us to the obvious connection between declining academic standards and increasing bureaucracy. Government funding (which admittedly only covers a small part of Oxford’s costs) goes to the university as a whole, so the more money that’s kept for bureaucratic empire-building, the less there is available for teaching — so posts go unfilled, and cheaper, inexperienced graduates and temps, often from abroad, get to do more of the teaching and, crucially, examining.

That’s fine in a small way, but not fine when it’s closer to the norm. Young postgraduate researchers are necessarily specialists; they don’t have the experience, knowledge or confidence to range over large periods of time or across disciplines. The result is a narrowing of range so far as students are concerned, and that’s inimical to everything a university education should be about.

Moreover, there’s no incentive for the bureaucrats — often small-fry academics themselves —  to pay themselves as little as possible. No one controls how much they spend or how many people they employ — quite the reverse. So, when the faculties complain about their dearth of funds, they’re told to get more fee paying students. That distorts the admissions policies for graduates.

You can see why private donors increasingly call the shots. Of course, everyone loves donors, including Louise Richardson — well, they should; the place was founded by clerics and the gentry — but when a university is less concerned about raising money for teaching than about being seen to raise it at all, donors can get pretty well what they like. They can demand lectureships or entire schools in their name, like the preposterous Blavatnik School of Government going up in the middle of Oxford. This megalomania has a knock-on effect, because the university often has to provide resources to match the donors’.

It would be tempting to blame the government — and the government is responsible for the way funding to universities became dominated by assessment exercises under which faculties get money in proportion to the research published by their staff, regardless of its usefulness. But the fact that university administrators are expanding at the expense of teaching in America as much as here suggests it’s a global trend, like Japanese knotweed. I don’t know whether Louise Richardson can reverse it. Given that she saw off Alex Salmond in the referendum debate over the effect of independence on Scottish universities, it’s just possible she might.

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  • Sean L

    I deal with university HR departments all the time. Just go to a university website. Many of them carry lists of staff in various departments, admin as well as academic. The number of HR staff is astonishing. And I can assure you their primary function is to make work for each other. But the principal occupation of government employees generally is producing stats for other government employees. What it has to do with education would never dawn on them. But that could be said of most figures produced by most government departments, which have no value independently of their own generation.

    • blandings

      “But the principal occupation of government employees generally is producing stats for other government employees”
      All University staff are government employees Sean.

      • Sean L

        Of course they are, I deal with them all the time – they’re typical. Buckingham and that new one started by AC Grayling in London are the private ones I know of. There’s also a small private college in Regent’s Park which has recently been accorded University status and is now Regent’s University. I think there’s one or two more private ones now – can’t think of their names.

        • Sausage McMuffin

          PhD certificate (nicely framed) for £1000. No study required, full credit given for life experience. Apply NOW and boost your job prospects. Free set of steak knives.

      • Lee Jones

        No, they’re not. Universities have never been part of the public sector. They are independent corporations.

        • blandings

          Pedantry Lee. You can give them whatever fancy name you want, but they are dependent on government for their funding and consequently they obey orders.

          • Perpetually Astonished

            Not any more they don’t. The government provides a very small percentage of the money for universities. The vast bulk of income comes from student fees.

            Pedantry would be to point out that only post-1992 institutions are corporations. Pre-1992 institutions are chartered bodies.

          • blandings

            I have worked in the sector for thirty years and know these things. I stand by what I said, as it is the government that ultimately detirmines the rules by which the game is played. Perhaps if you were not so easily seduced by fictions and fancy titles you would not be perpetually astonished.

          • Andrew Smith

            If the criteria for determining whether a person works in the public sector is whether or not the government determines the rules that govern the industry in which they work, everyone would be a public sector employee. They’re not, hence, you are wrong.

          • UncleTits

            Student loans: student is given fee ‘loan’ by the government, which is administered by the SLC, and repayment is conditional upon earning above a threshold after study has ceased. Student numbers for loans are monitored, and conditions are set, by funding councils who control the loans budget. University funding: funding councils pay universities based on the number of students in special subjects deemed important to the government. Also extra funding for infrastructure etc also comes from the government. Sounds very public sectorish to me. In all but name, in fact. Not many private (almost a swear word on government-funded campuses) universities in the UK.

          • St Ignatius

            If you worked in a high ranking Engineering faculty you would know this is b@lls. Humanities maybe, but we are awash with industrial money.

          • blandings

            Lucky old you but, by definition, most faculties are not high ranking and nobody with any sense would give them money.
            I

    • hdb

      I am surprised HR departments are growing. I know for secretarial and other non-academia staff many just go to temp agencies and let them do the little amount of work involved in finding someone (in return they permanently get a third of the employee’s wage which makes it not far short of indentured labour).

      • Sean L

        Nothing to do with recruitment as such, that assumes a rational business-like model. The expansion of HR and admin generally is more to do with expansion for its own sake: tail wagging dog.

  • magnolia

    4 years ago when I started in HE as a Senior Lecturer / Programme Leader, after 25 years in Senior Management within the Private Sector, I was astonished to discover that ‘Academics’ quite clearly work for the University’s Administrators.
    Academics are instructed about what to do, when to do it, how to do it, where to do it and there is no reciprocal discussion.
    The particular skill sets and abilities of academics are clearly irrelevant to University management as academics are perceived as mere ‘hands’ to be tasked.
    I am paid reasonably well but I spend a wholly disproportionate amount of my time having to do simplistic and hugely time consuming data inputting tasks; these tasks have no apparent purpose other than fulfilling some procedure devised and governed by the University’s Administrators.
    If any sense of collegiate spirit or positive student ‘experience’ ever existed in my University it has plainly been extinguished and replaced by meaningless mission statements and the dead hand of wooly minded bureaucracy.
    Sadly I shall be spending this summer trying to get out of HE and back into the private sector and I am far from alone in pursuing this ambition.

    • blandings

      I am Magnolia, an ‘umble middle ranking university administrator who finds time to read the Spectator.
      I quite agree that academic administration has grown like topsy over the years, but much of it, probably most of it, has been created by Government agencies demanding ever more information about our students and their backgrounds and to providing compelling evidence that the university is adhering to every whim, fantasy, policy and procedure dreamt up by our nanny state Government and of course all to a standard that will fend off the hungriest of lawyers.
      I’m tempted to point out to members of our frightfully liberal academic community that they are getting what most of them voted for and they’re getting it good and hard.

      PS: HR is a bigger nightmare for me than you.

      • Achilles

        The ‘frightfully liberal academic community’ didn’t vote for what they are getting. It is if anything a small c conservative community (‘frightful’ only if you insist) that would just like to be given space to pursue its professional ethos i.e. contributing immeasurably to the public good through its intellectual endeavours in research and teaching. Something at which UK universities are world leaders (thought we at present can’t cash in on this because Theresa May won’t let higher education seeking ‘foreigners’ spend their money here for fear they might be terrorists (or is it because it aids her leadership bid to appear a little UKIPPY)). Your ‘nanny state’ is not some popular socialist shibboleth drowning in red tape, it is that nightmare hybrid, a bunch of centralising fools (or else criminals) hollowing out public institutions and civic society by selling it as a cut price commodity to their buddies in private corporations (and themselves when on retirement they take up paid non-executive consultancy roles in these businesses), under a fig leaf of consumer politics, and a populist illusion of choice conjured in metrics.

        • blandings

          Astonishingly delusional Achilles, but you are welcome to believe whatever fairytales you like.

      • Sausage McMuffin

        Agree with this, my poor wife spends hours on this mindless nonsense which appears to be far more important to TBP at her institution than either teaching quality or support for research.

        It’s MUCH worse than the private sector – we have money to make, so even though compliance with all things PC has increased in the corporate world too, most people in charge remain aware that there are some more important things to do.

    • John Lea

      Don’t forget to fill out the 26-page ‘why i have decided to leave the university’ HR form before you go. This is crucial to ensuring our quality assurance processes remain of a very high standard.

    • BorderReiver100

      I taught in a sixth form college and it was exactly the same. Teachers were regarded as the factory floor of the operation and were required to do unecessary, repetitive clerical duties devised by any one of a number of the admin staff who stotted around the place in little suits from Next, high heels and of course carrying the essential thin file under their arms. Why a thin file? To show that they were up-to-date with their work – well they were, they had farmed it all out.

  • Having been in HE since 1979, I am with blandings on this. Much of the bureaucracy was created by HMG. Soviet-style bureaucracy did not die with the USSR, but transmigrated into UK HE in the sacred names of ‘accountability’ and ‘transparency’. Things like the REF and the QAA, plus the KIS date, plus the HEIF data, plus the DELHE data, plus the reporting on every aspect of everything we do, all requires administrators, as do ‘centralised teaching hubs’ which anonymise student work lest anyone marking it recognised the name of a student; one could go on, and it does, but you get the reasons blandings is right.

    • UncleTits

      This is correct. If the government tells universities that it will reduce the data-burden then expect an increase in the data burden. Government regulation and monitoring must be costing a shocking amount now.

  • Jambo25

    Don’t look to Louise Richardson to rock the boat or reform much. At St. Andrews she was a devout defender of the old order and an opponent of SG attempts to widen and democratise the governance of the institution.

    • St Ignatius

      If you are successful in research then administrators pretty much leave you alone to do your own thing. I’ve worked in private sector and HE and there’s moaners everywhere. They are usually the ones who aren’t very successful and stuck in their ways.

      • Jambo25

        1) I was referring to the general administration of a university and who was to have a say. Ms Richardson has a bit of a history on this. 2) I know a couple of people doing research work at a couple of fairly prestigious universities and they wouldn’t necessarily agree with you.

  • Fraser Bailey

    This has been going on for some time, as everyone knows, and is the reason why students leave university with so much debt. It seems to be endemic in the modern world.

  • rtj1211

    The administration departments became malignant tumours when the concept of ‘Full Economic Costing’ came into being. As a result, administrators saw that they could get huge slices of ‘research grants’ by assigning 150% overhead costs onto research grant budgets. A greater nonsense was never heard: yes you need to cost in buildings (but HEIs spend tens of millions on substandard buildings that will be pulled down in 25 years), but one efficient departmental secretary can do ten times more than a crowd of centralised busybodies who waste public money doing diddly squat other than acquiring centralised power…….

    • Sausage McMuffin

      Indeed, having helped the wife many times with the spreadsheety bits of research grant applications, I’ve been astonished at how big the take is for IT/admin/buildings etc.

  • John Andrews

    I have experienced much the same in one of the new universities. About 75% of the staff were teachers in 1990 (when we were a polytechnic) and less than 50% are teachers now. Part of the reason is computers. We used to enter marks into exercise books. Now we have teams of clerks to enter them in computers and teams of nerds to manage the computers. Then we have short courses in how to use the admin computers. But computers are not the major factor and I am mystified as to why we now have such legions of administrators.

  • Aberrant_Apostrophe

    Looks like I’m retiring from my red brick university just in time. One can tell the bureaucrats have really taken over by the marked increase in the number of pointless communications from our esteemed Admin colleagues over the past few years. Scarcely a day goes by without a missive about the VC’s latest thoughts, yet another senior management reorganisation, the latest equal opportunity initiative, gender awareness courses, compulsory talks on unconscious bias in recruiting, the usual exhortations to recycle more, info on green transport coupled with increased on-site parking charges, everything under the Sun to with H&S matters, and so on. I’ve taken to automatically redirecting the electronic ones to my spam folder, and the paper ones to the round filing system. If there’s anything really important I’ve ‘mis-filed’, I’m sure they will phone me up.

    • mdj

      ‘ I’m sure they will phone me up..’
      When Lord Alexander became the first head of NATO, somebody asked him how he tolerated being behind a desk after his wartime years of extreme activity.
      ‘It’s really quite simple’, he explained;’at the end of the day, anything in the In-tray I haven’t dealt with goes into the Out-tray. You’d be amazed how little of it comes back.’

      • mikewaller

        Courtesy of Wikipedia. [Anybody not already knowing this should be aware that the Mark Clark referred to in the final sentence was a self-serving jerk of Olympian stature].
        “Alan Brooke felt that Alexander needed an able chief of staff “to think for him”,[66] while Montgomery (Alexander’s subordinate in Africa and Italy) claimed to think of Alexander as “incompetent” and success was attained in Tunisia only because Montgomery lent Brian Horrocks to organise the coup de grace.[66] However, Harold Macmillan was impressed by Alexander’s calm and style, conducting dinners in his mess like those at an Oxbridge high table, discussing architecture and the campaigns ofBelisarius, rather than the current war.[66] Macmillan thought Alexander’s urbane manner and willingness to discuss and compromise were a sensible way to maintain inter-Allied cooperation, but Alexander’s reserve was such that some thought him empty of strategic ideas and unable to make decisions.[n 1] Graham and Bidwell wrote that Alexander’s impenetrable reserve made it hard to judge whether or not he had any military ideas, but that he was “unable or unwilling” to assert his will over his army commanders, and that Mark Clark exploited this weakness.[66]”

    • blandings

      “the latest equal opportunity initiative, gender awareness courses, compulsory talks on unconscious bias in recruiting, the usual exhortations to recycle more,”
      And if your VC didn’t treat these as matters of the upmost national importance?

      You’re lucky, I’m obliged to read all my emails – it says so in a document somewhere, (hey, maybe I wrote it – stranger things have happened).

  • hdb

    I am sympathetic to the article’s argument but the comment on bureaucracy leading to grade inflation is mad. The reason there are three times more firsts than twenty years ago is because undergraduates work a damn sight harder. It has become a dog eat dog world with even the meanness types of employment requiring unpaid internships to get a foot in the door. Undergrads know this and they are (I have even heard don’s say: sadly) much more serious and hardworking as a result.

    It is not just the students who are working harder and longer, academics are too and it is this culture of productivity tied to the increasing need to gain external funding that has lead to the explosion in academic management. Academics need a lot of assistance to apply for funds and when they have got them to manage the resultant projects and all their paperwork. It is this need to constantly be doing more that is more than anything driving the increases in management.

    • Lee Jones

      There is no evidence that undergraduates are studying any harder than in the past. The recommended minimum is 40hrs per week including contact hours. In 2014, the average number of private study hours was just 14.3hrs per week (see https://www.heacademy.ac.uk/sites/default/files/resources/HEA_HEPI_Report_WEB.pdf p.28). Part of the reason for this is that they are increasingly compelled to undertake part-time work to support themselves; one in seven actually work full time (http://www.theguardian.com/education/2014/aug/11/students-work-part-time-employability).

      • Paul Robson

        The reason there are three times more firsts is Universities compete for money and the easier it is to get a qualification the more students will be attracted to it. In my time, 30 years ago, almost nobody got a first.

        • Teacher

          I know a really clever bloke who went to a good university who would almost certainly be awarded a first today. He says the only chap in his year to obtain a first then was later awarded a Nobel prize. That sort of puts it in context.

          • SP

            I’m one of the guys who got one of the elusive firsts, back in 1985, at a university in the SE of the UK. Out of about 50 graduates per year, just 2 of us got them and we were given a prize of 25 quid each. 1-2 had been awarded each year for some years in that era.
            I am now a prof. in the same discipline in Australia, teaching the same type of course. We award about the same percentage of firsts, maybe just slightly more, but our entrance requirements are pretty much AAA [ converted from the Australian VCE exam] . I got into uni in the UK with far worse grades than that, and so did most of my classmates. People with AAA went to Oxbridge back in the 80s.
            Just to say, we do not look to our competitors when allocating firsts. We also do not compete for applicants, they are queuing up to get in. Some of the arguments for grade inflation do not apply.

    • blandings

      I’m sorry hdb, but grade inflation is all pervasive, at least in second rate institutions. I see many Masters degrees where the words Distinction and Merit have lost their usual meaning. The situation at Undergraduate level is no better. I don’t wish to sound bitter about this, but on my course at London University in the early 70’s the last guy to be awarded a first was the one teaching me. Now I see half a dozen firsts being awarded before lunch. Mere hard work should not be sufficient to justify a first.

      • Tom Allalone

        Totally agree, my previous university was handing out firsts so promiscuously that almost 20% of our students were getting them. Thirty years ago I was told the percentage awarded a first was under 5%. Students are no working four times harder and are not four times more intelligent. Also agree that part (but not all) of the growth ion bureaucracy is down to more monitoring and central government interference. However, there is a strong tendency to empire build and retain posts even when they are totally redundant – the same university continued to employ an anti-smoking co-ordinator after smoking was banned on campus. No-one had the fist idea what they actually did but it was an iron law that no bureaucratic post was ever abolished so there they stayed.

      • hdb

        You haven’t even read my comment! There are many more First today – and mostly because students are working a damn sight harder.

        • blandings

          I read your post and answered it
          Note final sentence

      • Jambo25

        I entirely agree. I signed up for a course, at Manchester, in the early 70s and specifically did so because of its very high academic reputation. Its ‘going rate’ was higher than that required for a similar Cambridge course at the time. In fact it was about the highest in its field of study of any UK university. It hadn’t awarded a first for about 7 or 8 years and didn’t award one during my 3 years at Manchester although a couple of guys who went onto chairs at very prestigious universities graduated in that time. One of my friends stayed on, as a lecturer at the old UMIST and was responsible, with others, for selecting entrants for a Masters by course offered by UMIST and open to students from UMIST and Bradford. It wasn’t exactly a surprise that you had to have a much higher grade of degree from Bradford, than UMIST to be allowed on that course. That was in the early/mid 70s and a gulf was growing between the quality of degrees even then. It has got worse across virtually the entire university sector.
        I went into teaching and towards the end of what I laughingly called my career It became rather obvious to my colleagues and I, who had to supervise new entrants , that the new teachers simply did not have the breadth and depth of knowledge that would once have been simply expected. I taught History and Social Studies but friends who supervised new teachers in Geography, Physics , Maths and other subjects all noted the same thing. Virtually all of these new teachers had upper seconds or better.

    • JonathanBagley

      I agree with Paul Robson below. University departments “pay close attention to” the proportion of firsts and II(i)s they award, compared to those they see as their closest competitors. It has a large input into the league tables. Logic dictates that this leads to grade inflation. It has in school examinations when exam boards are in competition for customers. Why should universities be any different? It is not necessary to do an internship, paid or unpaid, to get a good graduate job. As an actuary pointed out to me, there are many more graduate vacancies than internships and I know many students who got good jobs without internships, my niece being one of them. It is very difficult to determine whether today’s students work harder or longer. Conditions are different and the student population has massively increased. Back then there wasn’t the distraction of texting, facebook and and the internet, so productivity per hour worked was probably higher. On the minus side, pubs shut at 10.30 Sunday to Thursday, so for many, work stopped at 9.00pm. And at the weekends, we binge-drunk for England.

    • robertsonjames

      The reason why there are so many more Firsts and 2.1s is systematic managerial action to bring this about. After all, the more Firsts and 2.1s the better the institution will look in the league tables and the more likely that the same students can then be profitably recycled into the institution’s own lucrative postgraduate courses.

      There are many dodges they use to achieve this objective. They push staff to introduce forms of assessment, like coursework and dissertations rather than unseen examinations, that on average generate higher grades. They pressure staff to produce more top grades by including this as a metric in academic promotion criteria. They let students write anonymous comments on the performance of their teachers which will then be published in the full knowledge that this provides a further strong incentive for staff to buy favourable responses from their students by giving them more generous grades. They use what is discreetly called “mapping”, which in translation means a manager upgrading every single student on a course at the stroke of a pen based on a preconceived and implausibly high managerial target for the cohort’s overall grade profile. Finally, if all else fails, they re-work the classification algorithm to ensure that the same run of course grades that one year would have delivered a 2.2 degree will now produce a 2.1.

      Anyone who thinks ever-improving degree results are only caused by students working harder than before is either unutterably naive or just plain ignorant about the details of what is going on behind the scenes to make it inevitable.

  • MahatmaFarage

    How come cash strapped and market share losing Tesco/Asda/Sainsbury’s and Morrisons can afford so many shelf-stackers. Surely the German economic supermarket model could teach them how to provide shareholder value?

    How come in India there are virtually no unemployed, everyone is out there finding something to do, no one is sitting at home all day doing nothing. How many millions are employed by state-run enterprise, yes, state run? And India’s debt per GDP ratio is still only 4%, Britain’s still is 6%.

    • SP

      India has mass unemployment among its youth. See the work of Craig Jeffrey on that (he is an Oxford professor too).

      • MahatmaFarage

        Finding something to do and being unemployed are two different things. I blame social media in the western world for the procrastinative nature of *our* youth.

  • Teacher

    Exactly the same thing happened in schools, particularly after New Labour got in. Where once there were heads, deputies and teaching staff there began to be bursars, finance officers, an office full of PA staff where there was once just the head’s secretary, technical assistants, corridor display assistants, teaching assistants, I.T. technicians and so on and so on. Management grew like Topsy. When I started teaching in my school there were a head and two deputies. When I left them the management team had increased to seven, all with increased salaries and reduced timetables. The totally unqualified teaching assistants were being paid just a few thousand P.A. short of what a graduate teacher started on.

    I soon worked out that the teachers, on whom the children and parents relied were being treated like back-stairs maids sent hither and thither by OFSTED, management and rolling initiatives while the admin staff were coining it and having a ball.

    When my daughter went to university I could see the parallel and I thought to myself that if I were ever reincarnated into an academic career I’d go into the office rather than the classroom as that is where all the status and money are now. Old rope anyone?

  • “often from abroad…” ?

    • “the preposterous Blavatnik School of Government going up in the middle of Oxford” – uh oh, sounds like a donation from abroad…

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  • MathMan

    Isn’t this the same as what happens in the governance of any large institution e.g. government? The heads of departments are all empire building and allowed to get away with it. How many civil servants does it really take to run Whitehall and how many are employed (on the books)?

  • JamesDJ

    I read the article hoping it would actually answer the question posed by its headline. I already knew about this trend; it’s been the story for American universities for some time now. Aside from the idea that “a university is run like a biggish corporation” I have not been able to actually understand not only why academia is going this route, but how it’s financially possible for it to do so. All I know is that it’s happening, and that’s all the author of this article seems to know, too.

    And I also know that this trend is happening in the non-profit sector in general. It seems that a lot of people who failed in the commercial arena are now invading the not-for-profit arena and using the same failed methods to drive them into the ground. It makes absolutely no sense from a fiscal perspective; if I were a little more paranoid I would think this trend is based in ideology, or perhaps even a deliberate attempt to sabotage these organizations.

    Answers, please.

  • Winston Smith

    Sounds exactly like the NHS.

    GPs spend up to half their time collecting data for managers and attending meetings where they are told what to do by people whose knowledge of medicine comes from watching Holby City.

    The only time this stops is when something goes wrong, at which point the multidisciplinary ethos evaporates and the doctor is back in charge.

    A while ago Peter Oborne wrote a book about the rise of a political managerial class that refuses to acknowledge the expertise of public sector professionals like teachers, doctors and university staff.

    In the NHS this has led to situations such as Mid Staffs.

    • Irene S

      Sadly the data collected by GPs rarely gets seen by statisticians – most of those employed in the NHS were pushed out as we were deemed to be ‘too expensive’. Statisticians would have uncovered Mid Staffs problem far earlier and the report said that one of the reasons for the time it took for it to be acknowledged was that the people looking at the data were not qualified to do so. Statistical analysis would also have detected Shipman. I’m a statistician working in the NHS. When my previous boss glanced over my shoulder at a health economics book with an equation she said “Oh when I see things like that my head goes fuzzy”

      • Winston Smith

        Absolutely true, one GP I knew got so fed up of data collection that he started sending in the same set of figures each time.

        Nobody noticed.

  • SP

    I have taught at Oxford, but at my own university, Melbourne, our BIP programme (“business improvement”) has resulted in a large LOSS of administrative staff over the last two years. Some were quite senior. We may be bucking the trend, and in our case it was initiated due to alleged financial shortfalls, but I think this reversal of admin. numbers will come to other universities too. I don’t have the data but I suspect some the lost administrative capacity will have to be taken up by academics – we are now running Departments with less administrative support.Those that remain have to do an excellent job to keep up and I salute them.
    I would say that loss of admin. capacity is fully in accord with a neoliberal management model (which tries to save staff costs) – an inflation of administrative capacity, at whatever pay level, is not. This is probably worth thinking about – will UK HE next see sackings, and fewer positions for everybody, academics and administrators?

  • beenzrgud

    We need a good clear out. A ‘B’ ark me thinks !

  • ohforheavensake

    Because universities have to deal with an intrusive, market-worshipping government.

    • robertsonjames

      Precisely wrong. It’s the public sector imperatives of pen-pushing job creation and endless uniform regulation which imposes all manner of bureaucratic requirements on universities: REF, TQA, academic audit, FEC, Impact Assessment, equal opportunities, elf and safety, Border Agency checks, and lots and lots more besides.

      None of these burdens is about emulating the commercial marketplace or working with private enterprise. All of it is about complying with more and more legislation, serving the needs of the state bureaucracy and its obsession with micro-regulation.

      All of it is the spawn of politicians and public sector quangocrats, not of businessmen.

  • Michael990

    More staff ‘under’ you= More ‘responsibility’= More Money.

  • tonedeafchas

    The academics v administrators argument is unhelpful. As a course leader I’d like to be able to spend more of my time preparing engaging activities for my students but I find more and more of it consumed by paperwork. The fewer administrators we employ, the more administration I end up doing. (Incidentally, I think the same argument could be applied to the NHS.)

    • UncleTits

      Assuming that administrative processes cannot be streamlined which is rarely the case.

  • Bruce Lightfoot

    Same is happening down under in new Zealand. The rise of the administrator!. Maybe Arnie could play the lead.

  • Michael H Kenyon

    This is how university life has been for decades outside Oxford. Sometimes i think they were better when run by Marxists than when the Marxists became managerialists. You could argue the lefties down, but when you challenge some over-promoted child, they are quick to use every Machiavellian trick to undermine you.

  • mikewaller

    I and a group of friends recently had the privilege of being shown round the university from which we all graduated nearly 40 years ago, by a couple of recently retired professors. They were less than best pleased about the way in which things had developed and laid particular emphasis on the iniquity of giving “the student experience” top priority in “marketing” universities. This, they contended, resulted in vast sums being spent on all sorts of peripheral facilities designed to attract the eyes of prospective students at admission time. Here is another factor to put alongside bloated bureaucracies in driving up costs to no or, more likely, negative academic advantage.

    Perhaps the people who should be most embarrassed about this are folk who have an unswerving faith in the natural correctives applied by open markets. I say this because in a sphere characterised by spending on non-essential activities, the natural market response should be the setting up of rival institutions which spend the barest minimum on such fripperies whilst using the cash thus freed up both to lower tuition fees and recruit and generously pay teaching staff of the highest calibre, and this attract serious students of commensurate quality. As to why this does not seem to be happening in the university sector, perhaps the answer lies in a toxic combination of personal vanity (who wants to run a babbleless university?) and lack of market nouse amongst our current crop of vice-chancellors.

  • robertsonjames

    Richardson’s heart is in the right place on these issues but she’s unlikely to be able to reverse the relentless growth of The Beast.

    Friends at St Andrews tell of her entirely genuine American-nurtured outrage at the all-encompassing bureaucracy and love of long-winded formal process that bedevills British universities. Coming from a career at Harvard she simply couldn’t understand why academic staff in the UK not only believe they need to double-mark their students’ work (spending twice as long as the best universities in the world evidently think necessary) but also send it off to a third person at another university for checking (procedural over-kill if ever there was any). Nor did she sympathise with the mass of pointless administrative procedures that are endemic in the system: appraise this, form-fill that, send it to Committee A for approval and then on to Committee B for information while a team of people write self-evaluative reports about it for the audit file, all before anyone actually does any of the teaching or research which is the institution’s suppositious raison d’etre.

    But it was impossible for her to make much headway against it, given that it is so deeply ingrained in British university culture. Partly this arises out of the unhealthily close relationship academic institutions in the UK have with government and its pen-pushing quangocracy (an intimacy which most British academics actually favour because they think fully private and properly independent universities would be an ideological outrage). Much of the bureaucracy that ensues in universities is also positively loved and strongly supported by the academic staff themselves, who find it useful to bitch noisily about their heavy administrative burden but then always bitch even more loudly if you threaten to sweep away their busy-bodying committees or to eliminate the forms and reports that they like to use to monitor each other’s activities.

    If Richardson could do nothing about this as the effective CEO of a very small and relatively manageable institution she’s got precisely no chance of addressing it as the relatively powerless VC of a university as large, complex and obdurate as Oxford.

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