Susan Bassnett: Why administrators are our protectors

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The Independent Online

A couple of academics stopped me the other day to complain. Less time spent on teaching and research than on paperwork these days, they moaned. Trouble is, said one, we spend far too much on bureaucrats in universities and they spend their time thinking up new jobs for us to do. Absolutely, said the other, we should halve the number of administrators and spend what we save on their salaries on things that matter, like more lecturers. Administrators? Second class donkeys and a waste of space.

I encounter this kind of opinion a lot, and at times have felt a twinge of sympathy, but these days I take a different view. Far from needing to cut down on the number of administrators we employ, in some cases we ought to increase them, because so much of what they do takes the burden off academics, rather than the reverse.

The idea that university administrators generate paper purposelessly is simply wrong. Much of the paper is generated by government, by spurious "consultation exercises" inviting us to bid for money they've just taken away from us and relabelled. More paper is generated by the need for universities to be more transparent and more accountable to the public, which is entirely proper. In my university administrators have carried the bulk of the workload in preparing for a forthcoming audit, and it's thanks to administrators that many people have won research grants, because it takes someone with high-quality ideas and someone with technical form-filling know-how to make a good grant application. The pressure created by the increased number of student applications is, in many universities, now handled by administrators, as are strategies for widening participation, equal opportunities, and reducing the number of students who leave without a qualification.

One university employs academic misconduct Officers who follow up tutors' reports of suspected plagiarism. It's an important job that many academics can't do properly. One impact of top-up fees will be the administrative nightmare of managing more bursary schemes and coping with increased government regulation. The committee structures that some academics feel underpin their academic freedom are run by administrators. If the administrative staff downed tools, a university would collapse as surely as it would if all the technicians walked out of the science labs.

What is often forgotten is that over the past few years there has been increasing traffic across the administration-academic divide. Some academics move into administration, and many administrators have higher degrees. Career paths for graduates can lead into university administration rather than into lecturing. What makes a good university administrator? Good organisation, interpersonal skills, willingness to engage with new ideas and methods of working, up-to-date knowledge of government education policy and in-depth knowledge of your own institution. Add to that sound academic qualifications and a willingness to retrain and update regularly, combined with diplomacy, tact, discretion and a refusal to allow yourself to be browbeaten and there you are.

Yet still nobody likes university administrators. Academics blame them for all the paperwork. Gordon Brown is said to despise university management generally. But the reasons for such negative opinions lie not with the individuals who do the job, but with the structures of university governance that can appear antiquated and unfit for the purpose. Elaborate layers of committees, confused reporting lines and duplication of tasks abound. It's not unknown in some universities for meetings to last four hours or longer, while Dr X drones on about his pet obsession or Professor Y enjoys the sound of his own voice, while the administrators take minutes and try to stay awake. That's the sort of situation that wastes resources.

My hope is that our new generation of well-trained, professional administrators, many of whom are women, will be bold enough to bring about wider reform and diplomatic enough to win over the sceptics.

The writer is a pro vice-chancellor at the University of Warwick