Death by Management

I thought I’d do a quick post before I go out to pass on a story from the latest Times Higher. The news won’t come as a shock to anyone who actually works in a University, but it appears that the number of  “managers” working in Higher Education is growing rapidly:

Data released by the Higher Education Statistics Agency reveal there were 15,795 managers in higher education in December 2010 – up by almost 40 per cent on the 11,305 employed in the 2003-04 academic year.

That was compared to the 19.2 per cent increase in academics since 2003-04. It means there is now a manager for every 9.2 academics compared with a ratio of one to 10.8 seven years earlier.

It’s tempting to take the usual easy shot at “managers”, but I’m not going to do that, at least not immediately, because I’m not at all sure precisely how they define a “manager” in the context of this survey. In my School we have a School Manager, who looks after budgets and runs the School Office which carries out a large number of complex administrative tasks related to research grants, undergraduate and postgraduate admissions, student records, and so on. People like this are indispensible because if we didn’t have them these tasks would have to be done by academics, which would be a distraction from their proper business of teaching and research, and which they would almost certainly do extremely badly. Managers who work alongside academic staff and understand the realities of University life are therefore a good thing to have. They actually help.

The problem I have is that, as it seems to me, much of the growth in numbers of “managers” does not involve people in this sort of job at all. The greater part of the increase is in centralised administrative divisions or, as they’re called in Cardiff, “Directorates”. In fact Cardiff is nowhere near as bad in this respect as some other universities I’ve either worked in or heard about from colleagues, but it is an issue even here.

The problem we find with such folk is that they are so remote that they seem to have no idea what people working in  academic Schools and Departments actually do. For one thing they seem to think we just loaf around all day waiting for the chance to fill in some new forms or attend a some allegedly vitally important meeting at short notice (usually in teaching term, and usually mid-morning when lectures are in progress). In fact, there isn’t a day of the week when I don’t have teaching of some sort going on in teaching term. That’s not unusual for an academic in my Schoo, so it’s extremely difficult to attend such events at the drop of a hat without jeopardising teaching. The frequent requests to do so mean that I’d be surprised, in fact, if most of these managers actually knew when teaching term was.  Meetings scheduled outside term of course eat into research time, but given that managers think “doing research” means “having a holiday”, you might be surprised we don’t have more meetings during the student vacations. Of course the real reason for this is that they don’t want us to attend (see below).

Another result of the increase in administrative staff is a plethora of badly thought out “initiatives”, similar initiatives even arising from several directorates simulaneously as managers compete with each other to weigh down academics with forms to fill in. The worst of these involve idiotic schemes in which Schools have to prepare lengthy documents to bid for minuscule amount of money from the central University coffers, the cost in staff time  of administering such procedures far exceeding the financial or other benefits they can possibly deliver.

Worse, these central units are sometimes so badly run that they mess up the basic administrative tasks that they should be carrying out.  Schools are thus forced to duplicate the work that should be done by someone else to make sure that it’s done properly. The idea that centralised administration leads to greater efficiency rarely works in practice. In contrast to the staff in individual Schools, most of whom actually care deeply about what they do because they work directly with the people involved, to the administrators are sometimes – not always, by any means, but definitely sometimes – too remote to care.

So in the end I am going to take a cheap shot at creeping managerialism, but only insofar as it relates to the invasion of universities by people who have no understanding of the core activities of a higher education institution, but who think they have the right to dictate to people who do. Instead of meaningful cooperation with academics, we have phoney “consultations”: meetings usually scheduled in such a way that academics can’t attend (see above) or documents requiring a response with absurdly short deadlines. This kind of management does not lead to a more “professional” institution, it just leads to alienation. In short, these people don’t help at all, they’re a positive hindrance.

Over the last decade, the burden of red tape has steadily increased for all kinds of institutions, but only the NHS vies with Universities in taking the fetish of managerialism to absurd levels. Academics will soon have to take courses in management-speak before they can be employed at a University as the influx of business types continues to accelerate.

The greatest irony of all this is that in the UK universities (with some notable exceptions) are generally regarded by the wider world as examples of international excellence, whereas British businesses (again with some notable exceptions) are seen by those abroad to epitomize incompetence and failure….

9 Responses to “Death by Management”

  1. […] “… Managers who work alongside academic staff and understand the realities of University life are therefore a good thing to have. They actually help. The problem I have is that, as it seems to me, much of the growth in numbers of ‘managers’ does not involve people in this sort of job at all …” (more) […]

  2. Fully agree with you!

  3. Anton Garrett Says:

    Because admin takes on a life of its own and ultimately hinders rather than helps, DIY is the only way. There is a reason for this: administrators come to see their job of administration as an end in itself rather than as relief for academics.

    Anybody who doubts this should look at the empirical correlation in recent decades between the amount of time that academics spend on admin and the ratio of academics to administrators.

    One year’s notice is perfectly humane.

  4. I guess I am in danger of becoming one of those managers. My job is now 40% teaching, 80% admin and the remaining 120% time is for research. Where do I count?

    We have noticed that the drive towards more ‘efficiency’ requires more and more people. Who need paying. For every new manager, we need to bring in three new grants (based on typical FEC) to pay the person’s salary. The local people tend to be brilliant, the distant ones merge into the background making it very hard to distinguish where the value is. Fair amount of subsidized empire building.

  5. Andrew Liddle Says:

    Dear All,

    I may be playing devil’s advocate here, but on the whole I find our management/admin support very good, both locally and centrally, though there are a couple of less well functioning divisions (one in particular characterised by very rapid staff turnover). There has been a large growth in non-academic posts, but at least partly to blame is the over-bureaucritisation of higher education by successive governments to which universities have no choice but to conform. The previous Labour administration was just as bad in this regard as the current Coalition (though at least Labour presided over improved finance for universities).

    A common theme of these discussions, seen in your original post and also in Albert’s response, is heavy praise for the `brilliant’ local staff in departments and schools and criticism of those in the central university. It doesn’t seem very likely to me that all the most excellent staff happen to work within the departments rather than the centre, so I tend to think that the apparent lesser worth of the latter must be to a large extent an observational selection effect rather than reality. In particular because the undoubted high standing of UK higher education despite low per capita funding, remarked upon by Peter, is surely evidence the sector is in fact run very well.

    yours positively,


    • Anton Garrett Says:

      One reason why the problem has grown is that it is a lot easier to quietly accept another 15-minute admin task per week than to say No, this is time out of my research and that is what I am here to do. Four of those added, drip by drip., and that’s 50 hours less research per annum – a lot. An individual Lecturer who refuses admin stands no chance. Who do I blame? Heads of Departments in the last three decades, mainly. They are the ones who had the authority to say No – my staff must be given time to do their research.

      Then there is government’s very reasonable attitude that this is public money, so that accountability mechanisms involving a large amount of feedback are in order. The right reply to that was as follows: Until a scientist has been doing research for nearly a decade, he or she will not have a permanent position, and many fall at successive hurdles; so the survivors are those who have leapt many hurdles, and the best use of public money is to leave them alone to get on with it, because essentially nobody else who wants to do it is more competent.

      To get out from under this yoke will require one thing: Unity up and down hierarchies, involving lecturers, professors, department heads and entire universities.

    • telescoper Says:


      I don’t think it’s a selection effect. I think it’s because staff working in schools work closer to the coal face so better understand what’s going on in schools and invest more in building up relationships with other staff. The converse is true of those who sit in their bunkers in central admin departments who might as well be working in a call centre.


      • John Peacock Says:

        Peter, I don’t think you’re necessarily disagreeing with Andrew here. It’s a 2-way process: support staff benefit from being local and learning what academics actually need – but we too can come to understand how to get the best out of people if we see them every day. So I’m prepared to believe that staff in the Centre are potentially nice and useful people – but just mainly in the wrong location.

        It’s worth pointing out that in larger Universities (at least at Edinburgh), there are three layers: School, College, Centre. Many of our problems tend to accumulate in the middle layer: College is neither local and interactive, nor distant but authoritative. It’s a bit like going to the court of appeal, knowing that you’ll end up with the Law Lords if you don’t get satisfaction first time round.

        Anyway, as Andrew also emphasises: we shouldn’t be shooting the messenger here. The real problems come from people at the top and their “initiatives” that we all have to implement. Some of this comes from Government, and we have to live with it. More concerning is the population of Deans and Vice-Principals who originated in academia but now seem to delight in filling my inbox with corporate jargon. These are the people who could be fighting to protect research time – but if they are, they’re hiding it well.

  6. Bryn Jones Says:

    Yes, the managerial culture in central administrations of British universities is a problem, and the lack of an understanding by some of the needs of staff in academic departments is alarming. We might note that many of the people who do some useful administrative work are not the highly paid managers but modestly paid staff much lower down in institution hierarchies.

    If we are complaining about the quality of central management in universities, perhaps I could make a comment on the very variable quality of management by academics in departments. Some academics are excellent managers, but, equally, some are poor. These poor managers can cause great problems for the people for whom they are responsible, and can mess up the careers of postgraduates and postdocs.

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