Australia: Avance de la burocracia universitaria intermedia
Septiembre 30, 2023

Explosion of middle managers ‘ruining university life’

The gulf is growing between self-perpetuating middle management and the people who ‘produce the value’, Australian symposium hears
John Ross, September 15, 2023

A Kafkaesque instinct for bureaucratic self-preservation has made Australian higher education a “leading example” of “bad and ugly” employment practices, a Melbourne conference has heard.

UNSW Sydney economist Gigi Foster said the growth of “non-academic middle management” had occurred at the expense of the people who “produce the value” at universities.

“We are teaching more students with fewer staff, the staff we do have are becoming less academic and the academics we have are becoming more casual,” Professor Foster told a symposium at the University of Melbourne. “That…does not inspire confidence in our higher education system’s direction of travel.”

She said student-to-staff ratios had increased and the share of non-academic staff – who already outnumbered their academic colleagues – was getting larger. While university funding had risen since early this century, both in raw and proportional terms, money was being siphoned off to pay for “more and more middle managers”.

“Anybody who has ever read Kafka or knows the history of the Austro-Hungarian Empire will know that the main objective of a bureaucracy is to keep itself alive,” she said. “It will figure out ways to argue for its continued existence and the need for more money.”

Professor Foster said bureaucracy was growing to address both legitimate and “self-inflicted” compliance requirements. Examples included accreditation systems, research ethics regimes and learning outcomes mapping exercises.

Any academic with an idea to improve university practices was required to produce a business case demonstrating how the proposal would save the university money. “When in heaven’s name did that become the mission of the university?” Professor Foster asked.

Professor Foster said there was little evidence that any of this had made universities better. “What does [the higher education regulator] Teqsa say has happened to student outcomes? Have they gone up? Have we had better quality learning? Have starting salaries gone up? You can’t really tell,” she said.

“We’ve got too many bureaucrats and we’ve got bureaucrats who want to keep themselves alive in their bureaucracies. If we were in the private sector, those bureaucracies would be a lot smaller because the market wouldn’t let them survive.”

Money was also being siphoned off to pay “the top brass, [who] would be strapped to get a similar salary in the private sector”. More was being spent on consultancies, “for services that one would think universities could actually staff in-house”.

Professor Foster said Melbourne had spent almost A$38 million (£20 million) last year on consultants to help with the implementation of a finance and human resources system, advisory services for a strategy performance framework, accommodation architectural services and “microstrategy development” for data policy governance.

“If there is a kernel of need in there, it could be serviced by the university’s departments of management, architecture, strategic change and so on. We have supposedly world-class staff with terminal degrees in [these] disciplines,” she said.

She said the current university model would survive another 10 to 15 years as the gulf grew between “formal statements and systems on one hand, and useful or innovative work on the other”. Students and academics would “further detach emotionally”, seeing university as “merely a springboard or a pay cheque”.

“Those who’ve worked out how to milk the system for their and their mates’ benefit will continue to do so until there’s nothing left to milk, and then they’ll switch jobs,” she predicted. “That’s what greedy people do.”

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