Thursday, 3 September 2015

Minority report

The Times Higher ran a piece today with the news that ‘Academics [were] in the minority at more than two-thirds of UK universities’. This accompanied by comments about ‘an army of administrators’ and the like.

It’s hard to know what to make of stories like this. One the one hand, they belong to the long tradition of ‘academics versus administrators’ – the twin nonsenses of universities would work better if it was just left to academics and academics don’t understand the things that they should do to make the place run better.

But there is an important point which is about the growth of universities as complex organisations, with increasing regulation and accountabilities, and ever-more-demanding students.  Is it surprising that as universities get bigger and have to do more complex things, many of them decide that it’s best to hire staff with the right specific skills and abilities, allowing academic staff to focus on teaching and research? Napoleon said – in French, I expect – that armies march on their stomachs. Perhaps in the modern university academics teach with their professional service colleagues.

The THES data is easily replicable – it’s the staff data from Table 5 of HESA 2013-14, and the Finance data from Table 7.  The story identifies the top and bottom ten universities for costs per non-academic staff member, and percentage. It’s worth looking at the missing data – the top and bottom ten universities for costs per academic staff member. Here they are, using the same THES definition of only counting universities with more than 500 academic staff:

Highest ten costs per academic

Average cost - academic
Average cost - support
London Business School
London School of Economics
City University, London
King’s College London
Royal Holloway
University of Reading
Brunel University, London
Strathclyde University

Lowest ten costs per academic

Average cost - academic
Average cost - support
University of the Arts, London
University of Kent
Coventry University
Edge Hill University
University of Sunderland
Southampton Solent University
University of Chester
University of Central Lancashire
Anglia Ruskin University
Staffordshire University

I’d observe two things from these lists: firstly, higher academic staff costs seem to have an association with London location – Strathclyde being an outlier here. And lower unit costs seem to be associated with newer universities.

And then a further observation – the average cost per support staff does not seem to follow this pattern, with high and low in both of my lists, and a mix of locations and types amongst the THES lists.

So perhaps this says that there isn’t yet a standard business model for university professional support services. Now that’s an issue worth thinking about – if there is a best way to do it, the benefits for universities and their staff are large – efficiency and effectiveness, yes, but also greater transferability of skills, and possibly better career progression for professional service staff.

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