From where I sit - School sets a management lesson

January 1, 2009

Call me a hopeless romantic, but I believe universities should have just two functions: to teach students and to conduct research.

They should not be places with whole departments of staff managing administrators, policing myriad rules and regulations, creating mounds of unnecessary paperwork, conducting surveys, organising theme days, promoting meditation groups and producing newsletters.

We do not need human resources staff sitting in on interviews for academic positions; we do not need HR directing academic staff to ask candidates such questions as: "What do you understand by demonstrable experience in carrying out health-and-safety and anti-discrimination requirements in the workplace?" (This happened to me recently in a job interview - I wondered what sort of answer they expected and whether it would affect my chances.) Reading about the history of HR, it looks as if it once existed to facilitate employees and to ensure that their rights were met; today HR seems to exist merely to make things more complicated.

As I said, the university need have only two functions. The place of a tertiary institution is to instruct students, thereby helping them live a meaningful life in society, and to carry out research, thereby furthering human thought, innovation and knowledge.

Without an emphasis on those functions, we are in danger of turning out slipshod graduates who cannot construct a sentence and whose general knowledge is even more limited than their knowledge of the subject in which they are supposed to have majored.

Returning universities to their prime functions sounds unrealistically idealistic in today's business-driven world. Yet surely it's not impossible.

I was cheered recently by an article by Christine Gralow in The New York Times (7 October 2008) about the Equity Project Charter School (TEP), which will open in Manhattan in September 2009. It is a free school that will aim to educate middle-school students at risk of failure - those with the lowest scores will receive priority.

The most interesting thing about the new school is that it plans to pay teachers $125,000 (£83,000) a year in the hope of attracting the best candidates, particularly those with higher degrees. To do this, it will cut bureaucracy. The staff will consist only of teachers: no administrators, no co-ordinators, academic coaches or supervisors. Administrative tasks will be shared by the teachers, so no doubt will be kept to a minimum. The principal will earn $90,000 a year, and there will be no vice-principal.

I wondered if this model could be applied to tertiary institutions in Australia, particularly Technical and Further Education (TAFE) colleges, which pay extraordinarily low rates to teachers (which is the reason TAFE teachers went on strike in November). I have a feeling, however, that in Australia there would be so much bureaucratic red tape that it would take decades before it could be set up.

But at least let's think about the essence of tertiary educational institutes and try to cut through red tape in order to provide exemplary education and groundbreaking research. Eventually, our country will thank us for it.

See www.tepcharter.org for more on the Equity Project Charter School.

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