Wednesday, 26 February 2014

Academic v administrative staff in HE: A recipe for disaster?

Here is a joke:

A man in a hot air balloon realised he was lost. He reduced altitude and spotted a woman below. He descended a bit more and shouted, “Excuse me, can you help me? I promised a friend I would meet him an hour ago, but I don’t know where I am.”

The woman below replied, “You’re in a hot air balloon hovering approximately 30 feet above the ground. You’re between 51 and 52 degrees latitude and between 0 and 1 degree longitude.”

“You must be an academic,” said the balloonist.

“I am,” replied the woman, “How did you know?”

“Well,” answered the balloonist ”everything you told me is technically correct, but I’ve no ideas what to do with your information, and the fact is I’m still lost. Frankly, you’ve not been much help at all.”

The woman below responded, “You must be an administrator.”

“I am,” replied the balloonist, “but how did you know?”

“Well,” said the woman, “you don’t know where you are or where you’re going. You have risen to where you are due to a large quantity of hot air. You made a promise, which you’ve no idea how to keep, and you expect people beneath you to solve your problems. The fact is you are in exactly the same position you were before we met, but now, somehow, it’s my fault.”

Good, isn't it? Because to begin with you think it is a joke at the expense of the pedantic academic - but then the pedantic academic deals a killer blow and demonstrates clearly the pointlessness of the jumped-up administrator.  It reflects an attitude towards administration in educational institutions which is not uncommon - but I want to argue that perhaps what education needs more than anything is more administrators and that they need more credit.

The Higher Education Chronicle recently reported that a 28% rise in HE workforces in America is primarily due to an increase in administrative staff.  Naturally reports like this often lead to mutters and rolling of eyes - particularly among academics who are often prone to implicitly assuming that 'research' is the only legitimate work undertaken at a University.

The report itself highlights some of the reasons why this increase in administrative staff is needed: "the role of student services has been growing since the early 1990s" argues Robert E. Martin (@MartinRobertE), "when colleges believed that they had to provide more services outside the classroom".

It is difficult to argue against this.  The last few decades in Higher Education have been characterised by an ever-increasing sense of responsibilities towards students.  Widening participation has led to an increasing body of students who struggle through their studies with financial, social and academic challenges unimaginable to many of us more 'traditional' graduates.  Tuition fee increases have only served to exacerbate those issues, while at the same time bringing a sharp focus on the issue of 'value for money': When students are now clearly paying so much more for their degree, it is quite right that they are more attentive to what support they are receiving for their cash.

The idea of the student as consumer (further evidence of what Jameson refers to as the dominant culture of capitalism commodifying every aspect of social life, and what Freire refers to as the attempt by capitalist interests to stifle educations traditional role as a source of ideological opposition) has at least had this positive effect: It has empowered the student to the extent that Universities are far less able to determine student rights, and have to be far more reactive to their needs.  Meeting student needs more effectively, leads to higher retention and achievement statistics - which leads to more funding.

Paul Greatrix (@registrarism) adds further explanation for this increase in administrative staff: The increasing demands on lecturers and academics themselves.  These demands can be evidenced by increasing class contact hours, increasing demands on research activities and identification of research funding, increasing demands to provide more student academic support, to adapt to new technologies, to provide increasing loads of reports, attend staff development events, check data, etc..  As Greatrix points out:

In order for the academic staff to deliver on their core responsibilities for teaching and research it is essential that all the services they and the university need are delivered efficiently and effectively. There is not much point in hiring a world-leading scholar if she has to do her all her own photocopying, spend a day a week on the ‘phone trying to sort out tax issues or cut the grass outside the office every month because there aren’t any other staff to do this work.

Certainly I am sure there are many academics who will know what a difference it can make when they are supported by excellent administrative support.

All of which makes it puzzling therefore, that the new data published by HESA on 2012/13 demonstrate that between 2005 and 2013 UK Universities have seen a huge drop in non-academic staff.  Indeed between 2005 and 2013 there have been only 2 years in which there has been an increase in non-academic staff.  This is contrasted with academic staff, which have seen a growth in numbers in all but one year during that same period:

Academic Staff Non-academic staff
2012/13 +4200 -4125
2011/12 +200 -3945
2010/11 -410 -4820
2009/10 +2555 -440
2008/09 +4095 +2115
2007/08 +4950 -1605
2006/07 +5120 -1490
2005/06 +4220 +665

So what has been happening?  Why is there such a dramatic reduction in non-academic staff at the same time that demands for administrative support are growing?  There is little evidence, as Greatrix again points out, of these support frameworks being outsourced - so one can only imagine that non-academic roles are being amalgamated, retired or passed on to academic staff instead.

I'm not sure, but to me this sounds rather a recipe for disaster.  I have certainly had experience of being required to undertake highly complex administrative tasks because the administrator who used to do them was made redundant.  Although I do not pretend to understand any of the issues relating to staffing in any particular institution (least of all my own) it has occurred to me that given the pay scale of a lecturer, and the amount of time it takes for them to complete these tasks, the process itself can suddenly become a lot more expensive - and a lot more prone to error.

The problem (or at least, a problem) is that I have now lost count of the number of general elections in which the term 'unnecessary bureaucracy' has been held accountable for everything from failing educational standards and hospital patients lying in corridors, to budget deficits and global warfare (ok, not the last one. Not yet.).

'Administration' is often perceived to be a part of that unnecessary bureaucracy - in spite of the fact that it usually the government which imposes that bureaucracy and the administrators who attempt to address it.  Somehow we have managed to create an assumption that greater efficiency means an increase in reporting and support mechanisms, but a reduction in administrative staff.  It is hard not to think that the only consequence of this continuing cycle is academic staff having to increasingly fulfil administrative responsibilities - something which I fear can only ever have a detrimental effect on both student experience and academic standards.

Good administration seems to me to be the most fundamental requirement of any educational institution - and frankly I suspect this country could do with a little more of it.