Class Act: Revisiting the best ways to get the job done

Paperwork: More and more positions are developed for work such as "ticking boxes and meaningless, ill-conceived strategic projects".
Paperwork: More and more positions are developed for work such as "ticking boxes and meaningless, ill-conceived strategic projects".

Across Australia, universities have seen the number of professional staff increasing while the number of ongoing academic appointments have declined. In the US for example, one study showed that between 1975 and 2008, the number of academics grew 10 per cent while the number of administrators grew 221 per cent. 

In the UK, most universities have more administrators than they do academics (can you imagine the Yes Prime Minister television episode that might have focused on the award-winning excellence of the university that consists of administrators, no academics and no students?) At our own UNE in the decade 2007-2017, we see an increase in the higher levels of professional staff that is not matched by an increase in academics at any level (nor in the numbers of professional staff at the lower levels).

Spicer argues that this increase in professional staff is accompanied by an increase in empty activities. He talks about rebranding exercises, developing policies and procedures, ticking boxes and meaningless, ill-conceived strategic projects as examples of administrative empty work. Many of these activities (but not all) arise from governments who are increasingly attempting to micro-manage universities.

When governments control funding, most university managements feel they have no choice but to respond with the compliant “Yes Minister!”.

In the UK, ending the research excellence framework, for example, would reduce sector costs by 250 million pounds. Eliminating the teaching excellence framework would save 20 million pounds. Similar calculations are not available for the Australian university sector, but, from my own localised experience, in my school there are 2.5 full-time equivalent positions engaged with the work required for accreditation of our programs. Now I am not in any way disrespecting the people who are doing this essential work, what I am suggesting is that I am not convinced that their work makes any difference to the quality of the learning experiences I offer my students (in fact I can think of specific instances where the requirements actually detract from what I believe is the best quality teaching and learning I can offer).

Certainly there are risks in challenging government requirements. When governments control funding, most university managements feel they have no choice but to respond with the compliant “Yes Minister!”. Despite this, staff can be encouraged to challenge empty administrative tasks (Spicer calls these “bullshit jobs”). All staff can refuse to engage with empty talk (I am sure you will all be familiar with the many versions of “bullshit bingo” that abound). Spicer recommends simply tuning out jargon and empty talk so they are not rewarded with attention.

Following on from this identification comes what Smyth positions as the confront stage. When challenging everyday procedures staff can ask: why are we doing this in this way? Who says we should do it this way? Whose interests are being served by doing it this way? Who is advantaged and who is disadvantaged when we do it this way?

When new initiatives are proposed we can ask: where is the evidence that indicates this will work? How will this impact on staff? On students? We can insist that those who propose these new initiatives are actually given the responsibility of carrying them out. Not only will that ensure what is proposed is actually what is implemented, it will also make people think more carefully about their proposals.

Finally comes what Smyth calls the re-construct stage: the stage when we can ask ourselves are there other ways we could do this? How might we do this differently? While it might not be easy to get to this stage, it is not impossible. Small wins where we take large issues, break them down into small steps and small gains can produce results that everyone can see and encourage ongoing engagement in the process of change.

New models of social change are based on this concept of local activism where small, fragmented wins in changing contexts form the building blocks of change. Together we can do this.