The Monty Python script our unis are following
In the forest of reforms that boost Australia’s economic efficiency, one of the biggest and lowest-hanging pieces of fruit remains unpicked: emancipation of higher education from the shackles of bureaucracy.
Australia’s 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 headcount of 2,487 staff in March this year. The university employed around 1,100 staff in the Vice Chancellor’s Office, the Division of Corporate Strategy and Services and the Division of Academic and Research (which undertakes no academic research).
A 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 are 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 paper work that saps around 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 aren’t poorly paid either: in 2011 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 are 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 E&Y report says professional service firms in the private sector typically have around two or three times as many front-line staff as support staff, implying universities would need to sack around 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 in theory free up millions of dollars every year by sacking swathes of unproductive staff.
Universities haven’t 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. It periodically awards extra money to universities that “promote the productivity of higher education providers” (which does not appear to have been successful), among a raft of other arbitrary conditions.
This meddling requires a huge paper trail to demonstrate compliance. The Commonwealth cannot order universities about - they are ultimately creatures of the states.
Eminent 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 in Australia 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.
Government will need to trust universities. They performed their immense public good for centuries long before government bureaucracies became involved.
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