To excel, simply remove red tape

December 8, 2000

If British universities want to compete with the US they should overhaul their administrative practices, free academics from paperwork and abandon the honours system, argues Jeffrey Henderson.

Why is research at British universities in relative decline? John Kay's recent article about Oxford University's Said Business School has stirred up much debate. Kay blames arcane administrative procedures while Frank Furedi, of the University of Kent, says the problem is state-imposed bureaucracy. Both arguments hold water, but another cause is the internal bureaucracy that Oxbridge has bequeathed to higher education in general. Our universities are in decline because, like so much else in Britain, they are institutionally pre-modern.

In the days when even the largest universities had no more than 6,000 students and resources per student were far more generous, academics could teach, research and write and still have time for degree administration, pastoral care of students and the like. Those were the days when the well-meaning amateur administrator-cum-social worker could happily coexist with the requirements for high-quality teaching and research. Not any more.

In this era of mass higher education, these activities are incompatible with attempts to rebuild and sustain world-class research universities. When I tell American colleagues that academics here are still responsible for timetabling, ordering textbooks, counselling students on their emotional problems, debating for hours whether Sally Smith or Jimmy Chan deserves an upper 2:2 or a lower 2:1 degree, they roll about with laughter. And well they might. After all, some of them are members of the best universities in the world. Were British universities in the United States, it is not obvious that any of them would make it into the top 20.

But why are US universities superior? Funding levels are important, but the private status of some US universities is not the key issue. Also highly ranked are great public institutions such as the universities of Michigan, Wisconsin at Madison, Washington at Seattle, and in particular, the leading campuses of the University of California. Unlike most of the private institutions, these state universities are involved in the mass education of undergraduates. They have student populations far larger than any that exist in Britain and, usually, worse staff-student ratios. Why then are they thriving?

A large part of the answer is that they have organisational cultures that, while supporting the provision of a good undergraduate education, recognise that this must be achieved in circumstances where research and related activities are the priority. To this end they have developed administrative systems that transfer the burden of routine degree and coursework administration to professional administrators. Academics can therefore concentrate on what they do best: teaching and research.

An examination of the world's leading public research university - the University of California, particularly the operations of its Santa Barbara and Los Angeles campuses - is most revealing. For each campus, responsibility for degree programmes lies with central administrative units: the colleges (letters and science, engineering and so on). These devolve much of their work to constituent departments that have considerable autonomy over curricula, faculty obligations and such matters. While each department has a small curriculum committee, it is the chair of the department and departmental administrators (not secretaries) who perform the routine administration.

But three other elements are central to the university's ability to free faculty from degree administration. The first is the structure and assessment of the programmes: all are fully credit-based and modularised, and assessment uses the grade-point system. Students complete their degrees, not in an arbitrarily specified time frame, but when they have attained the requisite number of credits. The quality of the degree is decided simply by averaging their grade points. Thus all of those layers of bureaucracy that, in Britain, absorb vast amounts of staff time - faculty boards, boards of studies, examining boards, agonising over the progress of individual students, all the attendant communications - do not exist.

Second, faculty is responsible only for teaching students. In many cases, this does not involve marking more than a sample of essays and exams. This is done by teaching assistants or "readers" (graduate students employed under faculty supervision). Academics do not act as personal tutors or have pastoral responsibilities for students. Well-funded and professionally staffed welfare units take care of the latter and, with the assistance of undergraduate advisers, students are responsible for their own planning and academic progress.

The undergraduate adviser is the third key. These are specialist administrators attached to each department. Their duties include advising on the requirements for the major and honours programmes, timetabling, administering course evaluation and the recruitment, training and supervision of peer advisers. The latter are final-year undergraduates with high grade-point averages who are employed to advise other students on course combinations, content, attributes of staff and the like.

Each campus also has an honours college that provides more rigorous courses for top students. Selected faculty members are invited to offer honours courses, and they benefit from being able to run these along graduate seminar lines, while receiving full course-load credit. The students benefit from smaller classes and closer attention from faculty. Should they complete an honours programme, this is recognised on their transcripts and degree certificates, and they become eligible for membership of one of the national honours societies.

British universities have much to learn from the University of California: for example, high-quality research requires time. While teaching hours in the University of California are higher than those in older British universities, US academics benefit from off-loading other degree-related obligations. To move in this direction, British universities should recognise that, whatever the short-term routes to research enhancement, it is administrative modernisation along the lines indicated above that will deliver the longer-term benefits.

Crucially, however, they should abandon the honours-degree system, with its increasingly meaningless classifications. Universities should move to a proper credit system with assessment based on grade points together with their degree certificate. Graduates would then receive a transcript detailing their performance. This would be far better for them and their prospective employers than the obfuscation associated with deciding which is more worthy, a first from the new University of Poppleton or a 2:2 from the ancient University of Peterlee.

Jeffrey Henderson is professor of international economic sociology at the Manchester Business School, University of Manchester. He has also taught at Birmingham University and at the University of California.

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