The utter inefficiency of universities

12 Apr

Universities have been moving full-pelt along a new public management and neo-liberal track for a few decades now. Yet they are becoming more and more inefficient. The so-called reforms meant to make them more agile are having precisely the opposite effect. Rather than being institutions whose energies are directed towards teaching and research, more and more resources end up feeding the very administrative ‘reforms’ that are meant to make universities more efficient. It is madness and it goes against the most obvious law of economics: that specialisation leads to efficiency.

Adam Smith, of course, hypothesised that workers in a pin factory could be much more efficient if each specialised on a particular task rather than let each worker make  pins from start to finish. Universities (doubtless many of which cover Adam Smith in Economics 101) seem to have overlooked this basic understanding of how to make organisations run efficiently. Let me explain this from the point of view of a research active teacher: I can teach and research. To some extent I am trained to do both, and have racked up a lot of experience. I know how to conduct research and then translate that into journal articles, books, and teaching. In Adam Smith’s view, I am a specialist worker.

But a series of one-off or occasional administrative tasks that interrupt my teaching and research mean that I am not terribly productive. While we might formally have a division of labour, in reality our labour is spread across a range of tasks – many of which we are not trained for, are not terribly interested in, and need to learn from scratch. Tim Hartford had a fascinating column on this in The Financial Times not so long ago: “much modern knowledge work is not specialised at all. Might that explain why we all seem to be working so hard while fretting about getting so little done?”

Academics are asked to perform a series on often one-off (or occasional) tasks that are usually time-consuming and involve coming to grips to with a piece of software that will be used for this one task. It is the epitome of inefficiency, yet the narrative around such activities is usually one of reform, efficiency and productivity. If viewed through a neo-liberal lens it is madness: academic staff (if fortunate enough to be on permanent contracts) are usually paid more than administrative staff. Yet, academic staff are being tasked with more of administrative tasks for which they are untrained, thus diminishing time for teaching and research. The growing number of one-off or occasional administrative tasks make us generalists rather than specialists and thus less productive. For example, on top of teaching and research, I might be tasked with filling out a particular form connected with a hiring process, claiming expenses, or the administration of teaching. Because I rarely fill out these forms, it will take me a long time to complete this task.

The answer is to rebuild the administrative centre of universities. That might sound regressive to those interested in productivity but it is actually in line with Adam Smith’s views on a division of labour and specialism. The gutting of the centralised administrative capacities of universities (remember when universities used to have a Registrar?) led to the devolution of administration (but not control or power) to departments. In many cases, that led to a replication of administrative tasks. Manchester had departmental accountants, school accountants, faculty accountants, and university accountants who would check and recheck each other’s figures and come up with exactly the same figures … before everything was sent off to an external auditor! The vast majority of university administrators I have worked with are highly professional and beyond conscientious. In my view, they should be entrusted with greater responsibilities (and suitably remunerated, of course) and allow university teachers and researchers to get on with what they can do best: teaching and researching. For administrators, their professionalism and productivity is often derived from the expertise they gain by completing the same task (for example, filling out a particular form) on a repeated basis. To ask an academic to do that task once or twice a year, and have that academic spend three times as long doing the task because they don’t know how it is it be done, is simply a waste of resources.

Of course, I could dress all of this very obvious stuff (‘let specialists do specialist labour’) up as management consultancy and charge a day rate of £2,000. I suspect that universities might then listen.

One Response to “The utter inefficiency of universities”

  1. Harvey Turner 12/04/2021 at 1:19 pm #

    We’ll put Roger. I think this applies to teaching institutions across the board.

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