Nearly one in two university staff are administrative

The number of administrative personnel at Swedish universities has risen seven times as fast as the number of academic staff since 2000, according to research by a Swedish professor, and they now fill nearly half of all university jobs.

Daniel Waldenström, professor of economics at the Research Institute of Industrial Economics in Stockholm and a visiting professor at the Paris School of Economics, published the figures as part of a discussion of economic issues with five other economists on the website Ekonomistas on 2 October.

Drawing on data from Statistics Sweden that comply with International Labour Organization definitions and standards, he said the increase in academic staff in Sweden in the period 2001-13 was 14%, while there was an increase in administrative personnel at universities of 98%.

The increase of administrative staff in the Swedish higher education sector was also more than double the increase in the public administration sector in general in Sweden over this period, which was 38%.

Waldenström has also collected information on the reduction in the number of people in positions supporting academics (office assistants, secretarial positions or those registering data) at universities, finding that the total fell by 87% over the 12 years.

The reduction was significantly higher at higher education institutions (87%) compared with the public sector at large (35%).

University World News has obtained the raw data used in Waldenström’s analysis. These show that there were 27,281 academic staff at Swedish universities in 2001, rising to 31,040 in 2013.

The number in university administration positions grew from 13,915 to 27,580, while the number of personnel in academic support positions fell from 6,406 to 816.

Administrative staff hence accounted for 29% of staff at universities in 2001, and 46% in 2013.

“My feeling when starting to collect the data,” Waldenström wrote, “was that the Swedish university world is suffering from a growing bureaucracy, with an increasing demand from the ‘central administration’ and with a deficit of people in positions as office assistants and secretaries, working close to the core activities of research and teaching.

“Why has this happened?”, Waldenström asked. “If we should trust these data, which I find probable, I think an important factor is that the vice-chancellors cannot or will not resist, since they are totally dependent on their own administration.

“We cannot therefore trust that the vice-chancellors shall manage to initiate change processes, even if they see the problem.”

He said the question remains whether this is a problem unique to the public sector or if the private sector is “suffering from the same illness”.

“We need more information on these processes,” Waldenström concluded. “If not, there is a risk that bureaucratisation will become a drawback for the Swedish academy, and at very high costs.”

Multiple factors

Speaking to University World News, Waldenström conceded that a lack of resistance from vice-chancellors might not be the only factor in the rise in administrative staff. For instance, complexities in administrative procedures, increased competition for external funding and increased investment portfolios may have contributed to a growing administrative role.

He said there could be multiple contributing factors. But the lack of hard and comparable measures makes it difficult for decision-makers to understand where the costs go, what works and what does not.

"We therefore need broad initiatives to collect standardised information about the administrative roles and how they have developed over time. Perhaps we need to go back to basics, remove most of the non-research and non-teaching related activities in the central university administrations and thereafter build new systems."

The data compiled by Waldenström differs from data collected and presented by the Swedish Higher Education Authority or UKÄ in its annual statistics, which did not find a significant increase in the number and percentage of administrative personnel during the period 1986-2016. The numbers are also not found in the Association of Swedish Higher Education, or SUHF, statistics on the breakdown of costs at Swedish universities into different categories.