Blank faces and bungled systems

September 21, 2007

University bureaucracy is too often built by those who neither know nor care who academics are or what they need, says Tim Birkhead.

Researchers and teachers are victims of a burgeoning bureaucracy that increasingly stifles, obstructs and stultifies their creativity. New online systems, for example, are invariably devised to make managers' lives easier by getting punters to do the donkey-work.

Academics have been pathetic at resisting such changes, but in some domains, such as research councils and over-subscribed high-impact journals, they have almost come to expect unhelpful systems, becoming resigned to the fact that these are there to deter all but the most persistent. More insulting and demotivating, however, are online systems imposed from within our own institutions.

Public accountability demands some bureaucracy, but inefficiently designed or implemented systems stifle the very organism they are there to foster.

A colleague in another institution told me recently about what happened when the university adopted a new financial system. The so-called staff training was a fiasco. For an institution that prided itself on the quality and effectiveness of its undergraduate teaching, the managers entrusted to train academics in how to use the new online financial system were hopeless.

There was no evidence that they had tested their presentations beforehand; that they had practised their PowerPoint links; that they had checked that what was shown in presentations was what staff would see when they logged on to the site. When asked whether research students would be able to manage their own finances as the research councils insist, there were blank faces - who were these research students? Why would they want to order anything? The sense of despondency among the academics was almost overwhelming; not only because it meant more bureaucracy, but because it also demonstrated how ill informed and disconnected the administration was.

When the system was officially launched, of course, it failed to work for some time, causing stress among researchers and, by halting research, imposed immense (albeit immeasurable) additional costs. Perhaps most depressing of all was the sense of disdain with which the administration appeared to regard its academics.

In part, the cause of this kind of mess is the physical and psychological hiatus that exists between managers and academics. Within individual departments support staff are generally wonderful: committed to their jobs, getting on with academics and facilitating their research and teaching. Step into the so-called centre and you enter a world where many administrators seem to have no idea what the purpose of a university is or what makes it tick. My colleague told me that a senior administrator had asked him recently what a postdoc was.

The solution to this incompetent nonsense is simple. Whoever is in charge of an institution has to make it clear to the administrative staff that their main role is to facilitate research and teaching. If bureaucrats want to introduce a system, financial or otherwise, it has to be one that makes the lives of academics easier, not more difficult. It has to meet the needs of academics, not bureaucrats; it has to be field-tested; and those who demonstrate it need to be properly trained and the system should be run alongside existing systems until most glitches have been identified and resolved. Dream on.

Tim Birkhead is professor of behavioural ecology at Sheffield University, which recently gave him a Senate Award for Sustained Excellence in Teaching.

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