V-c: scholars should lighten the administrative burden

Greenwich head's suggestion is dismissed by union as 'ridiculous'. John Morgan reports

December 3, 2009

A vice-chancellor giving the opening address at a conference of university administrators might be expected to shy away from calling on academics to take on more backroom tasks as a means of cutting administrative staff numbers.

But Tessa Blackstone, vice-chancellor of the University of Greenwich and a former higher education minister, did just that at the Association of University Administrators (AUA) London regional conference last week.

While praising the essential role of administrators, she said that asking academics to do more administration was a way for institutions such as Greenwich to improve student-staff ratios - and hence their league table standings.

"If you have a long tail of administrative staff, they will not count in league tables," Baroness Blackstone said, professing her own preference for a "smaller tail".

"Some of the easier things should be done in part by academics, so we can employ rather more of them," she added.

Unison, which represents some administrators, said her suggestion was "ridiculous" and could damage students' experience of university.

However, despite the AUA being a potentially tough crowd for such a message, no obvious barbs were directed at Baroness Blackstone during a question-and-answer session with delegates.

Answering a question on "blended roles", which mix academic and administrative tasks, she said: "I would like to see young academics accepting that is part of their contracts. I would like to change this sort of attitude that all you really do is teach or research, or in most cases both, and that you don't have a sort of common responsibility towards helping to run the institution."

Baroness Blackstone said Greenwich's aim to improve its student-staff ratio was hampered by the high costs of maintaining its historic estate, which includes the Old Royal Naval College designed by Sir Christopher Wren.

She cited pastoral care and admissions as areas in which academics could do more.

Jon Richards, Unison's senior national officer for education, said: "This is the most ridiculous suggestion I have heard. Administrative staff take the pressure off academics so that they can concentrate on doing the job they do best.

"If the Baroness just wants to fix student-staff ratios, then she should argue for the measure to be changed to reflect the way that universities now work.

"The current measure, which focuses on academics and counts them the same whether they teach or research, yet doesn't take into account other (administrative) staff who provide direct student support, is useless."

Baroness Blackstone's speech was on "The role of vice-chancellors and the importance of working with a professional administration".

She referred to having seen, at various points in her career, academics "criticising administrative staff in a way I thought was disgraceful". Universities rely in part on administrators for their reputation and vice-chancellors should "cherish" them, she added.


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