Bloated universities must trim fat to perform better

Adam Creighton The Australian October 26th 2012

IN the forest of reforms that are aimed at boosting the nation’s economic efficiency, one of the biggest and lowest-hanging pieces of fruit remains unpicked: emancipation of higher education from the shackles of bureaucracy.

Australian universities are bloated with superfluous staff that thwart lecturers’ ability to teach and suck up funds that would be better spent on research. They are riddled with inefficiencies and perverse incentives that hobble their ability to produce rounded, competent graduates.

Take the University of Western Sydney, Australia’s largest, with a head count of 2487 staff in March this year. The university employed about 1100 staff in the vice-chancellor’s office, the corporate strategy and services division and the academic and research division (which undertakes no academic research).

Recently retired UWS property economics lecturer Norman Harker estimates that a further quarter of the staff in the teaching faculties were administrative, which implies that university-wide 56 per cent of staff were administrative.

It gets worse: cleaning and security are typically outsourced, so are not included in the above tally, and academics themselves are lumbered with copious paperwork that saps about one-third of their working hours.

“The administrative tail is wagging the academic dog,” Mr Harker tells The Australian.

“Examination lengths, assessment processes, course and subject content and delivery are now being dictated by administrators who are not currently responsible for teaching, research or publication”.

Administrators are not poorly paid either: last year, they soaked up almost half the university’s $340 million wage bill.

An Ernst and Young report into the future of Australia’s universities, released earlier this week, showed absurd administrative burdens were the norm. Only one of the Australian universities it examined had a ratio of support and administrative staff to academic staff of less than one.

The report says professional service firms in the private sector typically have two or three times as many frontline staff as support staff, implying universities would need to sack about half theirs to approach what might approach common sense. Yet universities still have the temerity to tell government and taxpayers that they need more money, citing bulging lecture theatres and crammed tutorials. They could free up millions of dollars every year by sacking unproductive staff.

Universities have not authored this Monty-Python script. Their vast bureaucracies service another bureaucracy in Canberra: the federal Department of Education, which insists they produce “profiles” and collect mountains of data to compile “performance indicators”.

Canberra specifies the number of places that can be offered across disciplines, penalising universities that transgress.

It attaches “protocols” to their funding that aim to influence how universities manage their internal affairs. This meddling requires a huge paper trail to demonstrate compliance. The commonwealth cannot order universities about — they are ultimately creatures of the states.

Australian economics professor Max Corden calls this system of funding “Moscow on the Molonglo”. As the real Soviet Union discovered, central planning is grossly inefficient, but we persist with it here.

Mr Harker says “UWS’s standards have got progressively lower and lower over the years due to the administratively dictated changes”, suggesting, academics were being forced to scale up examination marks to 50 per cent to keep up pass rates.

The expansion of publicly funded higher education has proved a powerful engine of social mobility for young Australians, launching smart, hardworking kids from working-class backgrounds into jobs their parents could never have had.

But public support for higher education need not require funds to flow directly to the universities. The federal government could directly subsidise students’ tuition fees and leave alone the administration of universities.

Competition would soon prompt universities to slash their bureaucratic burdens, freeing up skilled workers to move to industries where they can add vastly more value. That would be a win for everyone: universities, administrators and society.