John Field: March of the managers at Scots universities

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Taxpayers might be shocked to learn that three in five university staff are in non-academic posts, writes John Field

Who runs Scotland’s universities? Most people probably assume that academics take most of the key decisions. You might also suppose that academics make up most of the workforce. Figures released last week suggest that both assumptions are wrong.

Data compiled by the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) show that academics account for 43 per cent of all university staff, making them a clear minority. Almost three in five university staff are in non-academic posts, from administration and finance to libraries and cleaning.

The HESA figures are not altogether surprising. Seven years ago, the academic share was a shade higher than today, but non-academics were in a majority even then. What is new is the dramatic rise in the number of managers working in our universities – especially in non-academic areas.

Since 2003-4, the number of non-academic managers in Scotland’s universities has risen by two-thirds – and this growth rate is much larger than in the other home nations.

Scotland’s universities also seem slightly more “admin-heavy” than those of the other three nations. We have the highest ratio of non-academics to academics of all the four nations, with one-and-a-third non-academics to every academic. The HESA data also show an interesting trend among academic staff. The number of professors rose over seven years by 34 per cent – almost twice the rate of growth for other academics.

What this means is that, at a time of steady growth in public funding, the universities have invested heavily at the top. The number of managers has grown, but so has the number of professors. And while some universities may have decided to give a professorial title to some senior administrators, this hardly affects my figures, as the number of people involved is under a dozen.

The other interesting story is that women still only occupy fewer than one chair in five. Yet women account for 42 per cent of all academic staff, so the persistence of this protected enclave for men is rather scandalous. Interestingly, women outnumber men among the non-academic managers.

So something is happening to the shape of our universities. Academics have become a clear minority of staff and the numbers of senior academics and non-academic managers are both on the rise. This is the product of several different trends.

The first of these is a creeping rise in the number of academics who are awarded professorial chairs. In turn, this reflects the growing priority of research. The competitive pressures to recruit and recruit the best scholars are intense, and they will become sharper as tuition fees flow into the top English universities.

Some universities have also decided to give the title of professor to all senior academic managers. So some academics become a professor by tint of taking on leadership responsibilities, as a Dean of Faculty.

And, of course, some universities have decided to cut back on some academic activities. Modern languages and some humanities and specialist science programmes have all fallen victim to efficiency savings, which have been used to fund investments elsewhere. But as the HESA figures show, this has been dwarfed by the growing number of non-academic managers.

Most people outside the sector would be baffled by this phenomenon, but it is easy to explain. Just as in other public services, the administrative demands on universities have grown dramatically in recent years. And universities have faced a simple choice: do they ask academics to perform these tasks, probably badly, on top of their teaching and research? Or do they hire new specialists?

Laws on freedom of information, employment and procurement have all led to new appointments. Government has created new complaints procedures that, however well-intentioned, also bring new administrative demands.

Similarly, the wider community’s willingness to criticise and sue public institutions has generated a whole new risk-management industry. At the same time, universities are also expected to be entrepreneurial and raise income from their expertise, which, in turn, creates the need for specialists in patenting, intellectual property law and costing and pricing. And there are whole branches of administration who specialise in recruiting and supporting overseas students.

But this is not the whole story. Universities have also experienced the wider trends towards managerialism that have infected the entire public sector. Rosemary Deem, a respected education researcher, has shown how target-setting and cost-savings have led to new systems, grafted on to existing procedures, overseen by new managers.

Of course, many academics have noticed these changes, and complain about them. When the new managers speak in buzzwords and clichés about “leading on the issue going forwards” and “bringing blue skies vision and helicopter thinking to the fore whilst creating dynamic new synergies”, the responses are pretty predictable.

Cynicism, though, is not the answer. We need to acknowledge that many administrative managers do very important jobs in our universities. From libraries and information technology departments to counselling and the careers service, there are good (occasionally not so good) managers providing services that make a real difference to teaching and research.

We need a balance in all our universities. Strong, scholarly academics need to work alongside capable efficient administrators. At present, the balance looks as though it has swung too far from the core activities of higher education, particularly at a time when the sector has done well from public funding.

The public will not readily understand why their taxes should go towards growing numbers of administrative managers, rather than funding research and teaching. The Scottish Government is already looking to make savings on “back-office” functions. At the moment, it seems that education secretary Mike Russell’s only real idea is to encourage mergers, but the sector itself could do a great deal more to review and pare back on inessential activities.

In the future, I anticipate that the administrative and statutory pressures on universities will increase, whatever the government of the day may tell us. But will they be good for the sector? And, more importantly, will they benefit the wider society? I think not, on both counts.

• John Field is professor of Lifelong Learning at Stirling University.

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