Many masters, few functionaries as professional ranks transform

Unpublished Australian data show that number of regular support staff positions has shrunk while executive roles have expanded massively

November 25, 2020
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Professional staff ranks in Australian universities have been turned upside down in the space of two decades, with foot soldiers replaced en masse by sergeants and generals.

A study has found that 70 per cent of support workers’ positions disappeared between 1997 and 2017, reducing their share of professional staff from almost one in two to about one in seven. Meanwhile, the ranks of middle and senior management more than doubled from one in eight to over one in four.

The proportion of people in “regular” professional roles – such as senior librarians, technical supervisors and project officers – increased more sedately to constitute almost six out of every 10 general staff members.

The paper, based on unpublished university data reported to the federal education department, is under review by the journal Studies in Higher Education. It busts a myth that non-academic staff are taking over universities. Their share of the workforce has barely changed, remaining at about 55 per cent across the sector.

But this stability masks an “astonishing” growth in middle and senior management positions. “It’s a consistent trend across universities of all different sizes, shapes, ages, focuses and research intensities,” said co-author Gwilym Croucher, of the Melbourne Centre for the Study of Higher Education.

The findings explain why professional staff have progressively consumed a larger proportion of university budgets over the past 20 years. But Dr Croucher cautioned against an assumption that universities were becoming less efficient as they replaced ordinary workers with managers.

He said many highly paid professional recruits did not necessarily have staff management responsibilities. Some were “third space” professionals such as learning designers – roles that did not exist in the 1990s.

“But we can’t get around the fact that there is a much higher proportion of senior people in the non-academic ranks, and it’s costing more. There are real questions about whether there has been growth for legitimate reasons or this just accreted over time.”

Co-author Peter Woelert said the findings also helped to explain academics’ complaints about expanding administrative workloads. But while automation and technological change had eliminated the need for support staff who performed functions such as data entry, other roles may still be retained under different employment arrangements.

Dr Woelert said roles such as maintenance and cleaning had increasingly been outsourced, some jobs had been reclassified and lab technicians may have moved to casual contracts. Such details were difficult to determine from the data.

It is also difficult to say whether the senior executive category has expanded for functional or “cultural” reasons. Dr Woelert said that while any explanation was speculative, the similar trajectories among different types of universities suggested the latter.

“It may be [that] people think they have to behave in certain ways to be seen as proper universities,” he said. “Maybe they’re just copying each other and building empires. Sometimes you build legitimacy or get promoted by building big teams.”

The paper says that while university sectors elsewhere – notably the US, Norway and Germany – have gravitated to more highly qualified professional workforces, the growth in management-ranked positions at Australian universities has been “pronounced”.

Dr Woelert said it was no surprise that universities had started “mimicking what a regular corporate player looks like” when policy and funding levers encouraged such behaviour. “If you want universities to be strategic and attract clients, of course they’re going to spend a lot of money on marketing,” he said.

Dr Croucher said an increasing emphasis on performance-based accountability had also spurred growth in managerial ranks. “It requires people to manage those processes and work with governments, and it cultivates an internal culture of compliance checking. It comes from a good place sometimes, because people want to be transparent, but it also comes at a cost.”

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Foot soldiers fall out as managers march ahead in professional ranks

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Reader's comments (7)

These findings would, I suspect, match with what many academics sense has indeed been happening, and to that extent I am not so sure I get how they are really 'myth-busting'. Just as in other fields, it's not raw numbers in an organisation that count in deciding who is running things, it is access to the levers of power. Such an 'astonishing growth' in middle and senior administrative positions would then be entirely consistent with the 'mythical' corresponding sense of disempowerment from front-line academics, as would the simultaneous loss of front-line administrative support.
Exactly. Very close to what I was going to write. The trouble is, "administration" has at least the two meanings of "rank and file professional services" and "those running a university", and thankfully disparaging comments tend to refer to the latter rather than the former. The problem here originates in applying just one usage of administration, as if it's one thing.
The problem is in the way the statistics are counted which gives academic positions to individuals who are, at best, quasi academic. Suppose, for example, you hire a Deputy Pro Vice Chancellor of Canine Control but also give that person a Professorship in Zoology. The person does not appear as an administrative hire since they are moving into a professorial position with administrative responsibilities attached. It is highly likely that the professorship is something the individual would not get based on their academic record (this is confirmed by the lower average citations of these individuals) but they get it none-the-less. I have seen this as the main mode of operation across many universities. Individuals with poor academic records end up with tenured positions (hence the protection) but they are their primarily in administrative roles. Once they leave the DPVC of Canine Control they may go back to Zoology (who probably don't want them) but it is more likely they will take up another role -- such as Assistant to the DVC-T&L charged with spearheading the Teaching and Learning of Quadripedal Species initiative. The real issue is not that these individuals exist and are a budgetary burden but that they waste the time of others for no good reasons. I personally have been in meetings with such individuals and asked them very specifically what their role is and what success would look like if they achieved it. I have yet to get a convincing answer. No sane non-bankrupt corporation would operate this way and the ultimate reason you have these individuals is not because the universities have compelling, coherent and well thought out strategies, but because they are generally making it up as they go along. BTW a lot of this discussion can be seen in a recent book -- Devinney & Dowling, The Strategies of Australia's Universities (https://www.palgrave.com/gp/book/9789811533969) -- that is rather than less than positive about what the purpose and goals of these institutions are.
As a rank-and-file academic doing teaching and research in a Russel Group university, I am astonished and frustrated by the number of administrative and academic "coordinators" that create unefficient workload while not contributing to the core activities they are supposed to support. Over the years I have been lucky enough to establish my own network of shop floor colleagues (both professional services and academics) trying to shield from external interferences. Complex organisations such as universities should coordinate themselves by professional standards and not by managerial control.
Why is anyone surprised? The more you measure and assess, the more people are required to process the information that those who measure and assess require. It is a totally circular self-fertilising process. It started with Blair and his corporatist management approach, which loaded the NHS with hangers-on. (Whose highly-measured purchasing departments have done a really god job lately, haven't they?) It has origins in consultants spawned from the highly succesful (?) Arthur Andersen et al. Their activities glue up every system they touch but can prove irrefutably how much they saved by doing it, while charging ridiculous fees. Has no-one seen the staff officers song from Oh What a Lovely War?
The research has missed a fundamental point as to why there are relatively fewer lower level admin staff. What is a greater issue for academic staff is the way that more and more administrative work is shifted onto them, rather like 'manager self service' systems in other organisations. So we are the ones that fill in endless spreadsheets with student grades; we are the ones who create, type and then format examination papers; who are the ones who complete student records. It's a false economy. The cost appears to move from the administration saving relatively low-cost members of staff. However hidden costs are then shifted onto academics, who are in no position to complain. Colleagues in business consulting call this 'squeezing the balloon', the cost appears to disappear from one part of the organisation but pops out somewhere else. In this case, it creates an additional burden for academic staff, additional stress and is actually highly wasteful as they then become very expensive (but uncomplaining) administrators.
Agree entirely with Dr Nuts: rank and file administrators, who used to actually do the administrative work, have been dismissed, and their work has been taken on by academic staff - more work but no more hours to do it. Even worse, they have been replaced by senior managers, who don't actually do any of the administrative work.

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