French universities accused of management bloat at the top

One institution has 26 vice-presidents, research finds, following calls for the number of senior managers to be radically cut

November 19, 2019
Source: Getty
Top heavy the average French university had 12 vice-presidents; one had 26

French universities have been accused of being bloated at the top, with one institution boasting no fewer than 26 vice-presidents.

Some university managements have swelled to include vice-presidents for simplification, “success”, “heritage” and, even, “the sea”.

The findings follow up on a book published recently by a prominent French sociologist of universities, which accuses institutions of having too many senior managers and suggests that a pruning to no more than three or four vice-presidents is in order.

Collecting data from 70 institutions, the higher education news agency AEF info found that the average university had 12 vice-presidents, although there were wide variations. Four had more than 20, while five had four or fewer.

At the top of the list was the University of Lille, with 26. The university did not respond to a request for comment before Times Higher Education’s deadline.

Across French universities, there are 54 vice-presidents with a “digital” role, with another 25 responsible for “partnerships” of some kind.

Despite big variations, however, there was a rough correlation between the number of vice-presidents at a university and the size of its student body. Lille has the most vice-presidents, but it also has the most students: about 66,500 in 2017, according to the research.

The survey of universities’ senior management comes in the wake of work by Christine Musselin, a sociologist of universities and former dean of research at Sciences Po, who argues in her recent book that French institutions must radically reshape their management structures and shrink the number of vice-presidents.

Across many universities, vice-presidents, themselves normally academics, had duplicated existing administrator roles, she told THE.

Academics wanted one of their own in senior management positions, Professor Musselin explained, while administrators sometimes did not trust scholars to carry out administrative and managerial duties effectively, leading to parallel, and sometimes rival, management structures.

Presidents’ mistrust of faculty deans had also led them to appoint many new vice-presidents to act as a kind of intermediary management layer, Professor Musselin added.

“What is remarkable is that for many of the missions of the vice-president, you can find an administrative directorate, service or bureau in charge of the same domain,” she explained.

In some cases, this results in a struggle for power between two managers responsible for the same things, Professor Musselin observed – or, conversely, they can end up working together too autonomously and can spin out of the control of the university president or registrar.

This plethora of vice-presidents “splits the university government” into “small silos,” she said. “Each vice-president has a very focused view; and, of course, they all compete to get more attention than the others,” making it hard for the president or registrar to get a good overview of what was happening in the university, she continued.

Professor Musselin’s book Proposals from a Researcher for the University argues that institutions need to give deans more power and include them more in strategy.

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