Magazine article The Spectator

Degrees of Bureaucracy

Magazine article The Spectator

Degrees of Bureaucracy

Article excerpt

At Oxford and elsewhere, university administration is out of control

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. …

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