The grease that keeps the academic engine running

July 13, 2007

Name : John Gledhill

Age : 59

Job : Executive director to the vice-chancellor and clerk to the board of governors at Coventry University. About two thirds of my year is spent arranging schedules, appointments and so on for the governors. The rest is spent organising some of the vice-chancellor's executive committees, budgeting for the v-c's office and managing projects.

Salary : Not a lot. It covers one house, one car and one holiday abroad each year.

Education : My academic qualification is a PhD in the history of Dutch consonantal spelling, 1100-1970. In the past I have supervised students to degree level at the National Extension College, and been an examiner at the Institute of Linguists. I've lectured first-year engineering students on data protection and given evening courses in elementary computer programming. My current research projects are mainly outside my duties at Coventry: Dutch spelling reform and spelling reform in English (Simplified Spelling Society).

Working hours : My normal week is 8am to 6pm, Monday to Friday, other hours as necessary.

Number of students and staff you work with : I support one business degree student project on the economic costs of the current archaic English spelling system. My "staff" consists of my PA, but as part of the vice-chancellor's office I work with 13 other people.

Biggest challenge/bugbear this year : The biggest challenge in any year is convincing myself that the various national "bureaucracy reduction" initiatives actually reduce bureaucracy. As soon as one agency claims to have cut out a process, another arm of Government (or handmaiden of Government - for example, the Higher Education Statistic Agency and the Quality Assurance Agency) reintroduces it in another guise. Most of the externally imposed work is merely to provide statistics for parliamentary answers, and so is totally unproductive in terms of improving the system or its value for money - indeed, it is counterproductive. So many government departments and quangos are firm believers in the theory that you can make a pig fatter merely by weighing it more often.

How you solved it : You can't solve it. The government departments and their handmaidens have a vested interest in increasing bureaucracy, since it ensures their own employment, Just think, for example, if there were no changes in schools - the Training Development Agency for Schools and Department for Employment and Skills (or its latest incarnation) would get closed down. They have, after all, little interest in education, only its measurement and performance indicators.

Most new management theories are merely repackaging of old ones. Solution: listen, smile and nod politely and wait for next year's buzz word. My approach has been one of "wait long enough and everything will come round again and leave you back where you started". It's served me well for 30 years.

What is your office like? We look out on just about the only trees in this city-centre campus. When the leaves fall off the trees, we have a less impressive view of the the students' union building.

Who are the most difficult people you deal with professionally and how do you cope with them? All academic staff. But they are marvellous really, and great fun to be with. If only they could see the value of us professional bureaucrats, the world would be perfect.

I keep telling them we are the grease that keeps the engine running, and if we sometimes make irritating demands, to remember that without a morsel of abrasive sand in the oyster, there would be no pearls.

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