The Imperfect University: the first chapter

Because universities are difficult, but worth it

This year there have been a dozen posts in the Imperfect University series. Covering leadership, staff mobility, regulation, governance in Scotland and Virginia, not so revolutionary online provision, the CDBU and more regulation, there was I hope something of interest for many in here somewhere.

The Imperfect University

An introduction to the series

Who should lead universities?

What kind of people do universities need as leaders – is appointing a top academic enough?

More and more regulation

Despite the rhetoric we always seem to end up with additional rather than reduced regulation in higher education.

Reviewing higher education in Scotland

Comments on a recent review of university governance in Scotland.

Do we need a level playing field?

Some discussion on this frequently used argument.

Massive Open Online Confusion?

On why Massive Open Online Courses aren’t perhaps as revolutionary as is claimed by some.

Governance Challenges at the University of Virginia

On the removal of the President at the University of Virginia. Messy.

The Cult of Efficiency

A look at a book from 1962, Education and the Cult of Efficiency, which offers a salutary warning about the hazards of imposing inappropriate models in education.

Graduation – a bit London 2012?

London 2012 crowd

London 2012 crowd


A comparison between graduation events and the feel good Olympics. With other observations about graduation.

Mobility Matters

Developing and moving professional services staff.

First for the chop

Why there really aren’t too many administrators in universities. Honest.

How not to defend higher education

Commentary on the launch of the Council for the Defence of British Universities.

More to follow in 2013.

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The Imperfect University: How not to defend higher education

Simple: ignore administrators (or worse)
TIU
The recent launch of the “Council for the Defence of British Universities” (or CDBU) offered some fascinating insights into a particular corner of British society. Like a strongly worded round robin letter to the Times made flesh it attracted some big names  from Sir David Attenborough to Baroness Deech. A rather wry report of the event was published over at WonkHE:

At the root of many contributions appears to be a reaction against the suggestion that academics ought to justify their own existence or the funding they receive. If Plato’s philosopher kings were not expected to appear before the Audit and Accountability Scrutiny Committee of Ancient Greece, why on earth should The Great and the Good of the British Universities?

It doesn’t end here. We hear praise for the University Grants Commission Lloyd George created in 1919 and “lasted us well” for 70 years before its untimely abolition, and later, Francis Bacon’s 17th century “partition of the sciences”. The message is clear – time to go back to the future and the further the better.

Back to the future, Doc

Universities really do need to go back to the future it seems

In addition  a piece in THE on the launch of the CDBU noted that:

The council’s initial 65-strong membership includes 16 peers from the House of Lords plus a number of prominent figures from outside the academy, including the broadcaster Lord Bragg of Wigton and Alan Bennett. Its manifesto calls for universities to be free to pursue research “without regard to its immediate economic benefit” and stresses “the principle of institutional autonomy”. It adds that the “function of managerial and administrative staff is to facilitate teaching and research”.

This is exactly what university administrations are like

This is exactly what university administrations are like

This rather dismissive comment from the launch manifesto about administrators has been reinforced by the comments by Professor Thomas Docherty (someone for whom I have high regard) who has penned a provocative piece for The Chronicle of Higher Education about the new body. In this article he observes that there are, apparently, two remarkable things about this council. First, it has a membership of very distinguished academics (always a good start for a campaigning organisation that). But there is more:

The second notable thing is the council’s unique mission: It is the only group that exists to put university education back into the hands of universities, and to do so with the determination to reinstate the primacy of academic values. The council has issued a Statement of Aims that should form the basis for how the nation approaches the management of universities, their financing, and their social, cultural, and economic importance. Central to the aims is university autonomy and respect for the independent demands and exigencies of scholarly work.

Corporate management might conceivably be good for some businesses, but it has no place in the university sector. Our administrators need to serve the primary academic functions, but increasingly—and in this they simply replicate a more general social malaise—administrations exist to perpetuate themselves, like some kind of carcinogenic cell that threatens the academic body.

The council hopes to exert influence in Britain, but the common good it wishes to serve goes beyond our borders. I hope American scholars also find that the moment is ripe for the reassertion of academic values and join us in our work. We’ve already received suggestions about the formation of sister councils outside Britain, and we’d certainly welcome an American counterpart. As is clear, the threats to academic values are not just local to Britain: They are global.

Now as has been noted here before, there are rather a lot of administrators in universities. No doubt some in the CDBU would say too many. Are all of these people actively organizing against the fundamental interests of higher education? Are they essentially concerned with protecting themselves and bureaucracies at the expense of academics? Are they unable to support or even understand academic values? Are they simply stooges of the Department of Business Innovation and Skills? Are all administrators merely unwitting dupes in thrall to a neo-liberal marketisation agenda? I don’t think so.

In most institutions, the primary concern of the professional administrator is to support and encourage the best academics to do what they do best, to minimise the distractions and to reduce the unwelcome and bureaucratic incursions of the state into academic life. Administrators are concerned more than anything with protecting academic staff (often with some difficulty) from the worst excesses of the increasingly challenging and turbulent world in which universities operate.

In order for academic staff to deliver as best they can on their core responsibilities for teaching and research it is vital that all the services they and the university need are delivered efficiently and effectively. Universities do not seek to hire and retain world-leading scholars in order to get them to maintain IT systems, organise data returns to statutory agencies or look for good deals on electron microscopes. These services are required and professional administrative staff are needed to do this work to ensure academics are not unnecessarily distracted from their primary duties.

So, in some ways I agree with the CDBU proposition that the “function of managerial and administrative staff is to facilitate teaching and research”. However, it is the tone and place of this within the opening statements which originally troubled me and now causes even more alarm following Professor Docherty’s rather unfortunate comments.

Protect and survive

Protect and survive

Put simply, it looks to me as if, for the very great and extremely good of the CDBU, administrators are, at best, an afterthought. That would be the most benign interpretation one could put on the statements from the initial meeting and more recently from Professor Docherty. Because really it does seem that administrators are to be neither seen nor heard (check out that initial list of members again) and have no place in doing anything as important as defending higher education. Despite the critical role we play in the operation of HE, it seems we are really to be seen as humble functionaries with no part to play in the grand drama of university defence.

If a university prefers to see administrators merely as a servant class or indeed decides that many can be dispensed with through radical surgery to ensure that academics retain the whip hand then it might find it will struggle before too long. Whilst the nostalgia-infused senior common room debates and the delightfully sweet taste of golden age governance will undoubtedly sustain many of the leading participants of the CDBU it won’t be too long in their universities before the infrastructure and professional staffing required to maintain a 21st century institution atrophies and dies. So, the cancer-causing administrators may be excised but it will turn out that this is rather dangerous medicine that the Council has decided to prescribe. Indeed it looks a bit like retreating to 19th Century quackery when modern health care is available. All in all I fear it is a recipe for decay and decline and, you have to say, really isn’t a very good way to go about seeking to build a coalition in defence of universities.