How Come Our Cash-Strapped Universities in the US and England Can Afford So Many Administrators?

It took Oxford 40 years to catch up with Cambridge in appointing a woman vice-chancellor, but Louise Richardson — ex-St Andrews, Irish, Catholic, terrorism expert — is to take over from the chemist Andrew Hamilton. He is leaving early to head New York University for an eye-watering £950,000 a year. His successor will inherit a more modest but still whopping £442,000 a year. That’s what happens when a university is run like a biggish corporation — the head is paid like a chief executive. (A professor gets around £65,000 a year: once, Louise Richardson would have been on something similar.)

Chief of the problems Richardson has to get to grips with, once the ceremonial is done, is the extent to which the real business of the university — teaching and research — is being subordinated to its bureaucracy.

Remember the lesser-known bit of Parkinson’s Law — that bureaucracy expands in inverse proportion to its usefulness? The number of Navy bureaucrats rose after the first world war, Parkinson noted, just as the number of warships went down. That’s more or less how Oxford University is looking now — actually, how it’s looked for some time.

The university’s central administrative staff is now almost three times what it was 15 years ago. There was no similar increase in full-time academic staff, the people who teach students or do research, who belong to the faculties and colleges (Oxford, like Cambridge, is made up of colleges, with academics divided between subject faculties; the university itself is a sort of covering carapace and a funnel for funding). In other words, a university that used, in its medieval way, to be a model of self-governance, run by a Congregation of dons — one member, one vote — is increasingly being run by the equivalent of the civil service.

The figures elicited, not for the first time, an exasperated outburst from Peter Oppenheimer, an academic formerly at Christ Church, who vented his spleen in an enjoyable article in the Oxford Magazine. As he observed, ‘A defensible estimate is that at least 500 (of the administrators) are surplus to requirements for the effective running of the university. The corresponding unnecessary annual cost is around £1,500 per Oxford student (all 20,000 of them) per year, plus extensive non-quantifiable academic damage.’ That amounts to £90 million a year for admin — you can buy lots of professors for that. Louise Richardson has the reputation as a cracking teacher from her time at Harvard; the effect of all this shouldn’t be lost on her.

This hasn’t all happened at once. It’s been going on for at least 15 years and is by no means solely a British phenomenon — nor an Oxford one (Iain Pears is another academic who’s sounded off on the empire-building management, in respect of King’s College London). One reason for dwelling on the issue is that it shows how spending cuts often work — falling first on the people for whom a service is intended, here, students and academics, and, some way after, on management. And the problem of burgeoning bureaucracy helps explain some worrying trends, foremost being a perceptible decline in academic standards over time (it’s evident in grade inflation; there are three times as many Oxford Firsts now as there were 30 years ago) and — a lesser problem — the way private donors to the university are losing the run of themselves.

You don’t have to dig deep to find academics enraged at how administration flourishes while faculties are cash-strapped. Robin Lane Fox, New College’s ebullient former classics fellow, observes: ‘The vice-chancellor is paid three times what the Prime Minister gets. Layers of managers have proliferated. May I recommend the great historian A.H.M. Jones in The Later Roman Empire, on why the Roman Empire declined? Too many “idle mouths”. After imposing its central costs, the university now tells most of the faculties they are so far in “deficit” that the university cannot pay towards any new appointment and in case of a retirement or promotion it is for fundraisers and colleges to bridge the “gap” — i.e. temps can teach the undergraduates meanwhile and anyway the undergraduates should apparently be paying up to £15,000 a year for the non-privilege.’

Which brings us to the obvious connection between declining academic standards and increasing bureaucracy. Government funding (which admittedly only covers a small part of Oxford’s costs) goes to the university as a whole, so the more money that’s kept for bureaucratic empire-building, the less there is available for teaching — so posts go unfilled, and cheaper, inexperienced graduates and temps, often from abroad, get to do more of the teaching and, crucially, examining.

That’s fine in a small way, but not fine when it’s closer to the norm. Young postgraduate researchers are necessarily specialists; they don’t have the experience, knowledge or confidence to range over large periods of time or across disciplines. The result is a narrowing of range so far as students are concerned, and that’s inimical to everything a university education should be about.

Moreover, there’s no incentive for the bureaucrats — often small-fry academics themselves — to pay themselves as little as possible. No one controls how much they spend or how many people they employ — quite the reverse. So, when the faculties complain about their dearth of funds, they’re told to get more fee paying students. That distorts the admissions policies for graduates.

You can see why private donors increasingly call the shots. Of course, everyone loves donors, including Louise Richardson — well, they should; the place was founded by clerics and the gentry — but when a university is less concerned about raising money for teaching than about being seen to raise it at all, donors can get pretty well what they like. They can demand lectureships or entire schools in their name, like the preposterous Blavatnik School of Government going up in the middle of Oxford. This megalomania has a knock-on effect, because the university often has to provide resources to match the donors’.

It would be tempting to blame the government — and the government is responsible for the way funding to universities became dominated by assessment exercises under which faculties get money in proportion to the research published by their staff, regardless of its usefulness. But the fact that university administrators are expanding at the expense of teaching in America as much as here suggests it’s a global trend, like Japanese knotweed. I don’t know whether Louise Richardson can reverse it. Given that she saw off Alex Salmond in the referendum debate over the effect of independence on Scottish universities, it’s just possible she might.

Melanie McDonagh is a leaderwriter for the Evening Standard and Spectator contributor.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated June 6, 2015.

The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Susquehanna Valley Center for Public Policy.