The strikes over supposedly unavoidable cuts to the Universities Superannuation Scheme have belied the recent popular depiction of a corporatised English sector getting fat on excessive tuition fees. Those on the picket lines have stressed the pay austerity to which university staff have been subject in recent years, even as senior management’s pay has rocketed. And they have typically seen this as being of a piece with vice-chancellors’ supposed adoption of the worst aspects of corporate culture.
I don’t subscribe to Daily Mail-esque hysteria over greedy fat cats. However, I can visualise a much more efficient higher education sector, better able to cover its liabilities, that emulates the private sector in a positive way.
I work in professional services and, over the years, I have noticed an alarming amount of duplication and pointless inefficiencies in our structures. For example, we have administrative staff in academic departments performing pretty much the same role as their equivalents centrally. This is utter madness.
We have communications, student recruitment and marketing personnel in some academic areas (but not others) who run parallel initiatives and campaigns to those run centrally, again with very little separation. There are departmental administrative staff who work very hard to produce promotional literature and information packs for things such as open days, much of which directly duplicates the work of the central team and therefore adds no value for the visitors or the wider audience.
There are also academic staff who have a variety of non-academic duties built into their workload models, some of which directly duplicate and occasionally even conflict with the work done by administrative and professional services staff. Examples include provision of careers advice to students, admissions decision-making and processing, and content writing for promotional material. These tasks can be done more than competently by the professionals in these areas, while continuing to maintain a positive dialogue with academics around progress.
Meetings on a huge variety of topics are held at various micro levels of my institution, which are duplicated across teams and service areas. The result is invariably that the same points of action are recorded and performed by differing personnel within the organisation.
All of this keeps people very busy – but they’re only busy performing tasks that are unnecessary, and even a hindrance to the reputation and general functioning of the university. Where I work, we often describe ourselves as busy fools – we always have lots of work on our plates, but we often question its value. From what I hear on the grapevine from friends and acquaintances at other institutions, much the same is true across large parts of the sector.
It seems to me that there is a very strong case for reducing our level of staffing in professional services to the point where there’s no blatant duplication of work and everything we continue to do is directly aligned to organisational priorities.
Just imagine if the sector as a whole were to undertake a radical exercise of streamlining its workforce to meet this aim. Granted, there would have to be some redundancies, but these are a natural by-product of a free market – and, like it or not, that is what higher education has become. But the resulting reduction in staffing costs – which, if done properly, would have next to no impact on organisational output in the medium term – would put universities in a better position to bear their pension liabilities. And it would allow universities to offer better terms and conditions to those staff that remained.
Many of the most critical voices in the sector continue to lament the fact that higher education has become commodified. It is no longer simply about education, they whine. It’s a business: it’s all corporate. But for all of the reasons mentioned above, my view is that we’re actually nowhere near business-like enough.
If running our institutions more like public and private companies means better performance management, less wastage and less duplication, thereby alleviating financial pressures, then I, for one, am all for it.
The writer works in professional services at a UK university.