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Issue #4

The university sector has been growing for decades, but now that growth is going into reverse. The number of undergraduates applying to universities has fallen by 4% this year. Although close to 50% of the population goes through higher education, only about 20% of jobs require an undergraduate degree. One US study found that 46% of students showed no improvement in their cognitive skills during their time at university. In some courses, like business administration, students’ capacity to think got worse for the first few years. And after they graduated, many struggled to find full-time work while being loaded down with debt. Nearly a quarter of graduates were living with their parents or relatives.

One US study found that between 1975 and 2008, the number of faculty had grown about 10% while the number of administrators had grown 221%. In the UK, two thirds of universities now have more administrators than they do faculty staff. One higher education policy expert has predicted the birth of the “all-administrative university”.

All the while, faculty are under pressure to show they are producing world-class research, outstanding teaching and are having an impact on wider society. No wonder some faculty complain that they are “drowning in shit”.

But empty administration also comes at a significant cost. It is expensive, it is disheartening, and often it diverts universities from their core tasks. Instead of educating students, doing research and contributing to broader society, universities end up developing policies, ticking boxes and trying to climb up rankings.

This includes everything from fanciful strategy development exercises, managerial vanity projects like opening campuses in exotic locations and overly elaborate leadership retreats.Staff need to be given space to question and even veto any new administrative initiatives. When any new initiative is proposed, faculty need to ask: “Is there any evidence this works? What is the logic behind it? And is it meaningful to staff and students?” Answering these three simple questions is likely to cut back empty administration substantially.
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Aug 21, 2017