Universities in many parts of the world are buckling under multiple financial, societal and political demands. This has led to increasingly loud calls for what are called “enhanced efficiencies” – a term drawn from the business world.
And some institutions are heeding those calls. They’re drawing wholesale on the logic of the market in their bid to survive. They are becoming administrative universities without truly understanding how such initiatives chip away at the very purpose of higher education: the academic project.
The nature of the academic project differs from institution to institution – some will focus more on workplace employment, others on critical citizenship, and so on. But it will always be about the furthering of knowledge and the development of knowers.
In 2011, Benjamin Ginsberg, political science professor at Johns Hopkins University, argued that US universities were losing hold of the academic project by becoming administrative institutions.
He also showed that as student numbers increased across the US, the number of academics being employed to teach them and guide their research rose at the same or a slightly slower pace. But there was an astounding simultaneous increase in executive positions, usually people with business rather than academic acumen.
Despite these warnings, other countries have followed the US’s lead. South Africa is among them. This is cause for concern for both those inside universities and those in broader society who benefit from having a strong academic sector that fosters sustainable development, builds democracy and contributes to various other public goods.
It is crucial to ensure that the academic project at South African universities is vigorously and bravely safeguarded.
South Africa’s universities are turning into administrative institutions for several reasons. They’re dealing with crippling financial constraints; their costs are rising, but state funding is not matching these increases. There’s also a need to decolonise the structure and content of the curriculum.
Massification – the rapid growth of student numbers – is another issue. More than 20% of South Africans aged between 18 and 23 are now at university. The system has to attend to a diverse student body with highly uneven schooling and other prior experiences.
Leaders at many institutions seem to think the solution lies in learning from the world of business and putting more administrative structures in place.
There are five tell-tale signs of the administrative university:
1. New executive positions (and salaries): These positions, almost always prefaced by the words “executive director”, are becoming increasingly common. Their roles are related to everything from human resources to strategic planning to quality assurance. Each comes with a number of support staff – and a lot of meetings.
Individually such posts seem reasonable. Collectively, they shift the institution from university to corporation.
2. Appointments, not elections: In administrative universities deans are appointed by a selection committee, usually with a strong focus on their management skills. They must implement management decisions down into faculties and are often hired on contract with clearly stated performance targets.
Gone is the elected dean, chosen by a specific faculty to offer academic leadership, defend the academic project, and represent the needs and concerns of staff and students to management.
3. Decisions and policies: The moment the “executive management” team is made up of more administrator positions than academic ones, it is unlikely that decisions will primarily serve the academic project. Administrative efficiency, legal compliance and financial sustainability are all vitally important. But decisions and policies around these issues must first and foremost follow the logic of the academic project
4. Regulatory frameworks: Administrative universities love a politically correct catchphrase. In South Africa, the current favourites are transparency and social justice. These terms are then used to justify the implementation of many one-size-fits-all regulatory frameworks which govern every process from admission through to graduation.
Of course decisions need to be transparent, recorded and justified but we also need to make sure that decisions are based on what is fairest in a particular context. It cannot be considered social justice when processes become swathed in bureaucracy with no flexibility to take individual contexts into account in a very uneven society.
5. Quick fixes: Because these administrators set themselves up as being responsible for instilling efficiency into every aspect of the system, there is significant role confusion.
Soon, as Ginsberg showed in the US, administrators are commenting on issues which are entirely entwined with the academic project. Proposed common sense “interventions”, like add-on remedial classes, are advocated as being supportive. But they actually fly in the face of well documented teaching and learning research.
This article is not an attack on the dedicated individual administrators who help universities run smoothly. They are as crucial to keeping institutions going as academic staff. And they, just like academic staff, become badly overburdened in an overly administrative university. The issue is that introducing significant, expensive administrative structures too often comes at the cost of the pursuit and development of knowledge.
The blame for this bloat of bureaucracy doesn’t only rest with executive administrators. Academics have ceded the academic project to the empty rhetoric of efficiency. For academics to collectively resist these processes, they need to put up their hands to take on leadership roles and to participate in processes aimed at keeping the academic project as their university’s central driving logic.
Sioux McKenna receives funding from the National Research Foundation for research on institutional differentiation in South African Higher Education.
Read more on The Conversation.