Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Administrative bloat in universities

Via Matthew Yglesias, I've read Benjamin Ginsberg's shorter-version diatribe about the bloated administrative costs of US universities. Ginsberg has already upset Paul Greatrix by publishing an extract from his book in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

I think Yglesias' main point is a sharp one. Ginsberg seems to assume that the purpose of universities is to spend money on their professors (UK: academics). But universities respond to their incentives and the 'best' and 'most succesful' universities are usually judged to be those with the best-qualified entrants. Even in Yglesias' alternate reality where universities are judged by their success in supporting student learning, of course, it is less than obvious that student learning is maximised by increasing investment in professors (academics) at the expense of, say, IT and library staff, or student services professionals.

I'm less inclined to echo Yglesias' praise of the Ginsberg piece. On the contrary, with its leaden sarcasm, blinding non-sequiturs, and spectacularly tendentious use of anecdote (some university administrators have been guilty of fraud, therefore university administration is a fraudulent activity?) I think it is pretty shocking that a professor at a world-famous institution such as Johns Hopkins could have written such a thing. Administrative bloat is a real issue, and deserves much better treatment than this.

In no particular order, the issues I would identify are:
  • empire building. In my experience, executive PVCs are the best empire-builders. Most of these are 'academics' in UK terminology but 'administrators' in American language, so Ginsberg and I agree that this is an issue. However I also see plenty of empire-building in academic units so I am not completely convinced that this factor explains a secular shift from academic to admin across the whole sector (and in both countries). Constant empire building across all institutions ought to lead to a kind of brownian motion depending on where the most effective organisational politicians wind up in each university unless there are other factors at work.
  • Ineffective boards. Another issue where Ginsberg and I agree, but whilst ineffective boards may have failed to constrain change, they can't hardly have caused it.
  • technological change. Clearly the average university uses IT more extensively now than it did 20 years ago. We would expect to see a relative shift of costs into IT (and related staffing). In the UK we have seen a decline in the cost differentials between subjects as you can now do all (or almost all) of the computing on your UG science programme on the same machine that the historians are using to write their essays, suggesting that technological change is genuinely making a difference to costs in universities so this will be a material issue. 
  • scope creep. In the UK we now have things like knowledge transfer organisations in almost all universities that were almost unknown 20 years ago. Administrative jobs have been created because government funding was created for them, and associated new demands placed on the universities.  I am certain that this is a material issue, although I lack for stats to prove it.
  • legislative change. Given that one constantly hears senior administrators complain about the rather mild and wholesome example of Freedom of Information, I suspect that this may be less of an issue than you might think. However it is closely aligned to some broader issues of professionalisation - legal risks that would once have been cheerfully accepted (e.g. bias on the part of an admissions tutor) no longer seem acceptable leading to professionalisation of many academic administrative tasks.
  • blended professionalism. Celia Whitchurch's term of art (if you haven't come across it before) describes the development of new kinds of roles which are neither wholly back office/admin (like my role as a planner) nor straightforwardly academic. Blended professionals include dyslexia advisers, study skills tutors and many others who contribute directly to student learning, but are not usually on academic staff contracts. The creation of these kinds of roles (and there are certainly many people like this in every university I have ever worked in) means that we can't be sure that increased 'administrative' spending isn't going hand-in-hand with increased 'front-line' spending, as the nature of the roles on the front line changes.
Ginsberg's solution to administrative bloat is to return to the good old days when faculty (UK:academics) did the administration themselves on a volunteer, part-time basis. This deserves as much respect as any other 'good old days' solution. As I've tried to indicate, I see some forms of admin bloat as a solution themselves not a problem, for instance when specialists provide study skills support or personal advice and guidance. But there are still real problems of inefficiency in UK universities which must (given the relative costs) be far worse still in the US. Data transparency and professional management (or rather the lack of both) seem to me - and this is sheer prejudice now so every bit as bad as the Ginsberg piece - to be the key issues.

Having descended to personal prejudice I had better stop writing now, but I think this is a key issue that I will return to again if I can. 

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