Boffins, bureaucrats and blokes: senior staff in the modern university

Are our universities over-run by bureaucrats and jobsworths? Last week, Jack Grove reported on a sharp rise in the number of managers in British universities over the last few years. Writing in the Times Higher, Grove calculated that the number of managers in 2010/11 had risen by almost 40% since 2003/4, compared with a 19% rise in the number of academics. Readers were quick to weigh in, complaining of these ‘deadbeats’, ‘charlatans’, and of course ‘bureaucrats’, who are ‘irrelevant and mostly ineffective’.

I’ve worked in universities for over three decades and academic hyperbole is no stranger to me. So I thought I’d take a look the data that Grove drew on for his report, first to see what lay behind them, and second to find out how Scotland compared with the rest of the UK.

The data are easily available, and appear on the Higher Education Statistics Agency’s website. HESA reports on a whole number of different categories, including the numbers of professors in the sector; its figures for ‘managers’ cover non-academic managers only, not academic managers such as heads of department.

As it turns out, there is a story behind the figures for the professoriate. Half of this story is that the number of professors rose over the same seven year period by 34% – almost twice the rate of growth for other academics. This interesting figure is almost certainly one of the many unintended consequences of research assessment.

The other interesting story is that, despite this exponential growth in the professoriate, women still only occupy one chair out of five. Yet women account for 44% of all academic staff, so the persistence of this protected enclave for men is rather scandalous.  Interestingly, women outnumber men among the non-academic managers

Where do the Scottish universities stand? Our professoriate grew between 2003-4 and 2010-11, but by 29% as compared with 34% across the UK. Shamefully, we are as male-led as anyone, with women holding 18.3% of professorial posts, and 42% of academic jobs, though females do account for over half of non-academic managers.

And how about those managers? We like to outperform everyone in higher education, and we duly top the Four Nations bureaucracy championship. Our number of non-academic managers has risen by 62.9% – far more than the weedy English at 42% and the feeble Welsh at 31%; Northern Ireland, at a growth of 12%, wasn’t even trying.  

So something is happening to the shape of our universities. Academics have become a clear minority of staff – 57% of staff in Scotland’s universities are now non-academics – and the numbers of senior academics and non-academic managers are both on the rise. This is the product of several different trends. The first of these is a creeping seniority among academics, as more universities decide to award the title of professor to a wider range of people.

In turn, this reflects the demands of research assessment, and the competitive pressures to recruit the best, or at least the most plausible, talent. It also reflects the decision of some universities to give the title to senior academic managers, and occasionally to senior non-academic managers. As for the growth in non-academic manager numbers, this is surely partly a result of legislative requirements, as well as the wider trends towards managerialism that have infected the entire public sector.

We can anticipate that these pressures will increase rather than diminish, whatever the government of the day (or nation) may tell us. But will they be good for the sector? And more importantly, will they benefit the wider society? I think not, on both counts.

2 thoughts on “Boffins, bureaucrats and blokes: senior staff in the modern university

  1. Question: How many of those women in administrative roles in Universities have postgraduate degrees? Are they better qualified than their male colleagues? Would their first choice have been to be academics? Are their chances of promotion better in administrative roles than in academic roles?

    • The short answer is that I think these are really good questions and I don’t know the answer to them. There’s serious potential for some decent research into this issue, but I somehow cannot see it appealing to any of the obvious funding bodies.

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