Feeling curiously cramped lately?

November 18, 2005

In the US, the number of administrative staff has spiralled as the red tape involved in student recruitment and fundraising mounts. Is the UK heading the same way, asks Stephen Phillips

With 63,000 students, 20,000 staff, four campuses and an annual budget of $2.5 billion (£1.43 billion), Robert Bruinink compares his job as president of the University of Minnesota to running a "small city".

But the magnitude of US university operations today is only part of the story. In recent decades, institutions such as Minnesota have faced a dramatically shifting funding climate, tougher competition for students, equity concerns, increasing regulation and unrelenting pressure to install the latest technology.

Spiralling managerial overheads have driven unparalleled growth in the number of administrative staff. Allowing for US idiosyncrasies, this offers a glimpse of what might lie ahead for British campuses. The Higher Education Funding Council for England predicts that professional and support staff numbers will need to grow by 30,000 over the next five years.

In 2003-04, the latest year tracked by the US Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics, teaching staff accounted for just 37 per cent of staff on US campuses. They were outnumbered by the combined ranks of professional administrators (34.2 per cent) and auxiliaries such as clerks, maintenance workers and academic support staff (28.8 per cent).

"It's an interesting phenomenon," says Roger Geiger, distinguished professor of higher education at Pennsylvania State University. "Faculty at the core of the institution - the embodiment of its learning - are increasingly a minority."

A proliferation of postgraduate programmes offering masters and doctorates in higher education administration has professionalised administrative ranks, adds Dorothy Finnegan, assistant professor of education policy at the College of William and Mary in Virginia.

There are 1 such programmes in the US, according to the Association for the Study of Higher Education.

In so-called student affairs, covering everything from halls of residence to campus societies, "you could still walk in, in the 1970s, without much of a background", says Finnegan. "Now, the majority of student affairs people have (higher education) doctorates."

Bill Tierney, professor of higher education and director of the Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis at the University of Southern California, identifies two rapidly growing administrative areas. One is that of support staff, who are often hired on casual contracts for specific research projects. The other is the cohort of officials recruited to manage the burden of research and financial regulatory compliance.

Such developments, and the long-standing use by most universities of specialists to handle undergraduate admissions, academic counselling and extracurricular tutoring, suggest that US faculty members are a pretty pampered bunch.

Geiger says: "In one sense, all this assistance helps us to do our jobs better, lets us concentrate on our specialisation, but, on the other hand, it makes universities extraordinarily complex institutions that keep getting larger and larger."

Meanwhile, some faculty harbour concerns that the growing importance of financial considerations in university decision-making and hiring policies is compromising core academic missions and skewing research priorities.

Minnesota's precarious-sounding "funding challenge" illustrates the point.

"The state provides 25 per cent of our funding and we have to secure 75 per cent of our funding through grants, contracts, gifts and tuitions fees,"

Bruinink says. "Proportionate (public) investment in research institutions has declined by 30 per cent in real terms in Minnesota over the past 25 to 30 years."

Minnesota isn't unique. Presidents across US campuses said fundraising and budget issues were one of the main draws on their time in a 2001 poll by the American Council on Education.

William Kirwan, chancellor of the University of Maryland, estimates that fundraising consumes a third of his time.

"There's probably not a major university that hasn't already done or isn't in the midst of a $1 billion fundraising campaign," he says.

Madeleine Greene of the American Council on Education says: "Colleges (are having to be) entrepreneurial. They're expected to have diverse sources of income. It's just the air that we breathe."

University wages reflect this concern. This year, presidents and academic deans aside, chief business officers earned the highest median salary at $123,825, closely followed by chief investment officers on an average $121,602 a year. Not far behind were chief development officers, who are tasked with tapping donors; then governmental and legislative relations directors, who are in charge of lobbying for more public funding.

Meanwhile, traditional funding sources such as state legislatures are exerting new pressures on campuses to demonstrate a return on investment, Kirwan says.

Lawmakers want to "know their investment in higher education is producing measurable gains and (ascertain) to what extent we're transferring intellectual property into the market".

"It's become an accountability issue," he says. "(They) look at us and ask how much (revenue), how many patents and how many start-up companies we're generating." This in turn has boosted the number of administrative staff.

"There's increasingly a whole complex of people involved in relations with industry, start-up companies, running business incubators, research parks and economic development agencies," Geiger says.

But some fear the emphasis on cashing in on intellectual property could lead to the neglect of more speculative research without immediate commercial applications and could impact on disciplines with few entrepreneurial outlets, such as education.

"Universities are looking at income generation and prestige," Tierney says.

Graduate schools of education don't bring in research grants, aren't the most productive research-wise and outreach to schools is increasingly seen as something comprehensive (less selective) universities can do."

Academic staff are also angry at the growing chasm between their pay and that of top administrators.

Average presidential salaries rose by more than 70 per cent between 1993-94 and 2003-04, while faculty salaries rose less than 50 per cent. Last year, presidential salaries ranged from 1.5 times to 5 times those of senior professors, according to a preliminary analysis carried out by the group.

Universities say generous presidential salaries reflect rates in industry.

In a measure of how high-powered senior administrative ranks have become.

More than half of recently appointed university presidents in 2001 were recruited by executive headhunters compared with just 16 per cent before 1985.

But in an atmosphere of cost-cutting across university ranks, eyebrows have been raised at some examples of salary inflation for those in top posts.

In October, for example, Benjamin Ladner was ousted from his reported $800,000-a-year position as president of Washington DC's American University following revelations he retained his own personal chef and chauffeur and billed the university $125,000 over three years for lavish international trips and meals out - but not before he agreed a $3.7 million severance deal that provoked outrage.

"I don't think people would argue against higher salaries (for presidents), but when (some) are making more than the President of the US, you have a problem," says Kevin Mattson, professor of contemporary history at Ohio University and author of Steal This University: The Rise of the Corporate University and the Academic Labor Movement .

He adds that the increasing importance of student tuition fees as public funding declines is driving universities to plough resources into wooing more students, mounting marketing and outreach campaigns and investing in on-campus facilities. This in turn means more jobs for administrators.

Indeed, the distinctly corporate-sounding post "director of marketing" emerged as a new rank in this year's survey of administrative staff's salaries by the College and University Professional Association for Human Resources.

As for the future of university administration, Tierney suspects that technology will be a key area for expansion. "Twenty years ago, who would have thought the primary way for (prospective) students to get information from campuses would be over the web?"

He also expects the burgeoning for-profit higher education sector's emphasis on cost-effectiveness to be increasingly felt on regular campuses.

This may involve a fundamental rethink of traditional academic roles, particularly with regards to research and teaching responsibilities.

"I live in Hollywood, where Charlie Chaplin used to write, produce, direct and star in his movies," says Tierney. "Now (those who work in) Hollywood have different roles and we're going to see the same thing in higher education."

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