One of the common themes you'll see when people complain about rising university costs is the increased cost of administrative staff. This is usually portrayed as simply greed, or laziness on the part of universities, for instance this Wall Street Journal article reports a 37% increase in admin staff from 2001 to 2012. The Center for College Affordability and Productivity has little doubt about the lack of value admin staff add, stating: "You can have a university without administrators, but not without students or faculty. The minimization of administrative costs and bureaucracy should be sought in any university reform. A few decades ago, few universities had more than a small centralized public relations staff."
A report detailed in Inside Higher Ed comes to a similar conclusion: "They waste a lot of money on redundant administrative activities and could probably save money in the long run if they made big changes to their structure". And this article suggests that Pennsylvania universities increase in admin spending rose by 53% from 2001 to 2010. And while he doesn't address admin specifically, Clay Shirky tells us that the Golden Age of higher ed is over because it's unaffordable (see David Kernohan's withering response also).
Now, I ought to confess that I'm married to a university administrator, so I may have more than a little bias in my response to this. What most of these articles conclude is that it is simply greed, or unnecessary bureaucracy that has led to this, with of course, the implicit suggestion that if universities were proper businesses they wouldn't put up with it. Now, I get very frustrated with some of the needless layers of process that have been put in place, and often it seems inflexible and all rather pointless, so I'd admit that I'm sure we could do a bit of a streamlining. But between my wife and I we've been through a fair number of these restructurings, as well as seeing other universities do it, and my general impression is that they don't really produce the admin savings people predict.
One of the common complaints is that "we used to be more efficient and not need as many admin staff". The second part of this is true, we didn't need as many admin staff, but that was because the amount of legislation that universities have to respond to was far less. Think of the following areas, all of which affect universities, and ask yourself whether the associated administration related to them has increased or decreased over the past 20 years:
- Student accessibility
- Finance, tax, charity status
- Health and safety
- Estates and property
- International students and business
- Student recruitment, teaching quality assessment, pastoral care
- Research bidding and reporting
- Employment law
The reason universities have big, complex administration is because they operate in a big, complex world. Probably far more so than most companies who only have a particular focus and are only concerned with legislation that relates to their niche practice. In the 1970s you only needed one administrator in a department because no-one cared about any of this stuff. Now, you'd be shut down, or face criminal charges for failing to respond to it.
As a test of my hypothesis that university administration has increased in complexity, I did a simple bit of research. I went to the legal database Justis.com and searched for legislation that related to universities. Now there are all sorts of problems with this methodology: I didn't analyse each piece, I didn't strip out repeated legislation, I just counted the number of bills. It doesn't include a lot of things that will relate to universities but not mention them specifically, eg health and safety, and it also won't include all the increased administrative overhead that isn't included in a bill, eg increased demands for reporting on EU funded research projects. So it may well be flawed, but as a simple indicator of the increased administrative burden on universities, it should work to give a general feel for the level of change. My hypothesis would predict a substantial increase. I counted the number of bills from 1974 to 1993 and from 1994 to 2013. The results are shown below:
From 1974 to 1993 there were 262 bills, and from 1994 to 2013, 413, an increase of some 58%. Now I did this in 10 minutes and I suspect it's really a two year research project to really underake it (maybe someone has, please let me know), so I'm happy to be corrected, but I think this gives a good general indication. My guess is that it may underplay the real increase in administration since so much else relates to factors apart from legal duty.
The question then is not so much "why do universities spend so much on admin?" but rather "do we want society to make universities spend this much on admin?". And here people can be a bit hypocritical – they will probably say reduce the admin spend, but then demand robust appeals procedures or sue a university for not taking due care. Which of the areas I've outlined above would you personally be willing to take responsibility for if we reduced the legislation on it?
The point is that these are issues beyond universities, society can't place an increasingly complex legislative and administrative burden on universities and then complain that they spend more money on legislative and administrative tasks. If higher education were truly privatised and run by companies as some wish, then maybe some of this cost could be reduced, mainly because government ministers would listen to entrepreneurs who complained that needless bureacracy was impeding profits. I'm not sure that would lead to better education necessarily, but it may be cheaper. But can we please stop with the "bloody admin doesn't add anything" message?