Universities are broke. So let’s cut the pointless admin and get back to teaching | André Spicer

André Spicer
‘Universities have been growing for a decade, but most of the resources fuelling that growth have gone into expanding university administration, not faculty.’ Photograph: Leemage/Corbis via Getty Images

As students have been celebrating their exam results, pundits from across the political spectrum have been commiserating the state of British universities. Andrew Adonis, an education minister during the Blair years, has excoriated universities for offering costly courses while jacking up the pay of their senior leaders. Nick Timothy, Theresa May’s ex-advisor, thinks UK universities are an unsustainable “Ponzi scheme”. The universities minister, Jo Johnson, has written about the need to put further pressure on seats of higher learning so students get good value for money.

Behind the political point-scoring are more serious issues. The university sector has been growing for decades, but now that growth is going into reverse. The number of undergraduates applying to universities has fallen by 4% this year. Although close to 50% of the population goes through higher education, only about 20% of jobs require an undergraduate degree. One US study found that 46% of students showed no improvement in their cognitive skills during their time at university. In some courses, like business administration, students’ capacity to think got worse for the first few years. And after they graduated, many struggled to find full-time work while being loaded down with debt. Nearly a quarter of graduates were living with their parents or relatives.

On top of all this, UK universities have some significant financial difficulties. The university pension scheme is £17.5bn in the red. Senior managers have been on a building spree that has been almost entirely funded by new borrowing on the bond market. Many institutions are locked into costly private finance initiatives.

Underlying all this bad news is an often overlooked fact. Universities have been growing for a decade, but most of the resources fuelling that growth have gone into expanding university administration, not faculty. One US study found that between 1975 and 2008, the number of faculty had grown about 10% while the number of administrators had grown 221%. In the UK, two thirds of universities now have more administrators than they do faculty staff. One higher education policy expert has predicted the birth of the “all-administrative university”.

The massive expansion of administration has also fuelled an equally stark expansion of empty activities. These include costly rebranding exercises, compliance with audits and ranking initiatives, struggling with poorly designed IT systems, engaging with strategic initiatives and failed attempts at “visionary leadership”. All the while, faculty are under pressure to show they are producing world-class research, outstanding teaching and are having an impact on wider society. No wonder some faculty complain that they are “drowning in shit”.

Universities end up developing policies, ticking boxes and trying to climb up rankings

The expansion of empty administration has some up sides. By showing universities are willing to keep up with the latest management fads and fashions, they gain credibility in the eyes of business and government. Empty administration makes some members of the university feel good about themselves. But empty administration also comes at a significant cost. It is expensive, it is disheartening, and often it diverts universities from their core tasks. Instead of educating students, doing research and contributing to broader society, universities end up developing policies, ticking boxes and trying to climb up rankings.

If universities are interested in addressing the problems they face, what is not needed is spectacular reform. Such reforms are often costly, disturbing distractions with a short shelf life. What is needed is something more modest, but more far-reaching: cutting back empty administration.

The first step in cutting back empty administration is eliminating the demand. An important aspect of this is to remove creeping government attempts to micro-manage the sector. Putting an end to the research excellence framework would save the sector £250m. It would also eliminate pressure on faculty to publish obtuse articles which are read by few people. Killing off the new teaching excellence framework will immediately save the sector £20m, plus countless hours of staff time spent complying with the exercise.

The next step is to root out the supply of empty administration in universities. A modest first step would be the elimination of “bullshit jobs” in universities. These are jobs which the people doing them think should not exist. Creeping forms of corporate escapism in universities would also be wound back. This includes everything from fanciful strategy development exercises, managerial vanity projects like opening campuses in exotic locations and overly elaborate leadership retreats. Staff need to be given space to question and even veto any new administrative initiatives. When any new initiative is proposed, faculty need to ask: “Is there any evidence this works? What is the logic behind it? And is it meaningful to staff and students?” Answering these three simple questions is likely to cut back empty administration substantially.

Finally, universities need to stop rewarding the creation of empty administration. They can do this by not rewarding empty talk with attention. Simply switching off as soon as someone begins to use empty business jargon will mean people who present new ideas think them through thoroughly. They need to make stupidity costly. One way to do this is by requiring people to fully carry out their own fanciful ideas. When people have to implement an idea, they are likely to think twice before proposing it. Finally, universities need to make it costly for individuals to increase organisational load. For instance, before introducing a new procedure they would need to eliminate an old one.

Cutting back on empty administration comes with risks. For instance, powerful groups like politicians may see universities as “out of touch”. Accessing resources used to support empty administration can become more difficult. But cutting empty administration is likely to be worth it. Universities will no longer be burdened with the cost. Staff will feel like they are no longer being crushed by meaningless and wasteful processes. Students will no longer be faced with thickets of maddening processes. The institutions themselves are less likely to be diverted from their core tasks of educating students, carrying out research and contributing to the broader society. Finally, the public is more likely to trust higher education institutions which carry out their purpose of educating students, conducting research and contributing to wider society.

• André Spicer’s new book, Business Bullshit, is out in October

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