Administrators are draining university resources – Study

Highly educated administrators at Swedish higher education institutions increased by 4,000 people (from 6,000 to just over 10,000) or by 68% from 2004 to 2019, compared with little change in researcher and teacher numbers, and a 10% rise in student numbers, according to a research paper.

While the staff budget share for administrative staff rose from 6% to 20%, the total staff budget for academic staff fell from 68% to 62%, leading the paper’s author, Anders Kärnä, to argue that a continuation of the trend would weaken research and teaching at the universities.

“Thus, there are more students for each teacher, but fewer students for each bureaucrat,” he writes in the report.

The study (in Swedish), published at the end of August by the Centre for Business and Policy Studies (SNS) in Stockholm, has been discussed on social media, with people giving suggestions about what administrative tasks should be scrapped.

The report is a follow-up to an earlier report, “Ballooning Bureaucracy: Tracking the growth of high-skilled administration within Swedish higher education”, that Kärnä co-wrote with Fredrik Andersson and Henrik Jordahl in 2021.

In Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet on 28 August, Kärnä published an op-ed article headlined “Cut down on the costs of universities’ expensive bureaucrats” in which he said the number of highly educated administrators in the country’s universities and colleges had increased almost seven times as fast as the number of researchers and teachers during the period 2004-19.

Referring to the SNS report, he said: “In particular general administrators, communicators, human resources and IT personnel have increased, while the number of librarians has remained almost constant over time.”

Kärnä’s research shows a decrease in less qualified administrative staff, such as secretaries, over the study period.

“This in turn suggests that Swedish higher education over-allocates resources to highly skilled administration,” he argued.

Kärnä’s research, based on detailed registry data on all individuals working at Swedish universities and colleges, suggests that the increase in highly qualified administrative staff could partly be financed by a “substantial reduction in professions that can be replaced by digital technology”.

However, he says that the time that teachers and researchers spend on doing administration themselves has not decreased during this period, suggesting that the additional administrative bureaucracy does not seem to be reducing the time that academic staff spend on administration.

This means that the increased amount of funding now being directed to administration could have “negative effects on funding available in other areas, perhaps leading to a decrease in research output and teaching quality, with negative long-term effects on technological development”.

Social media response

On social media sites, notably Facebook, the majority of commentators agree with Kärnä that action is needed to reduce ‘over-administration’ at universities, with some comments listing which administrative tasks should be scrapped. Some compare administrative staff in Sweden with staffing patterns elsewhere.

Henrik Sternberg from Ames, Iowa said on Facebook: “If I anecdotally should compare the universities I have attended (Iowa State University and West Virginia University) with Chalmers and Lund Technical University, my impression is that Sweden has approx[imately] 30% to 50% more administrative staff.

“But the big difference is that administrators in Sweden have significantly more power and sometimes even higher salaries compared to researchers/teachers. Here [in the United States] administrative staff have very limited power and the highest salaried administrators are having a lower salary compared to the lowest paid tenure-tracked professor.”

View from Norway

Vice-Rector of the University of Oslo Professor Bjørn Stensaker, who has a PhD in public administration and organisational theory from the University of Twente and is involved in comparative research in higher education governance, said although Kärnä’s study was interesting, from a comparative perspective, it was unclear what level of bureaucracy characterised Swedish higher education prior to the increase in administrative staff.

“If you have too few or too many bureaucrats, both situations may cause problems,” he told University World News.

“In Norway, we see a situation that may be a bit different from Sweden. Administrative efficiency cuts by government over the last years are now becoming very problematic for the universities to handle, and we do see signs that the academic staff are doing more work that used to be handled by the administration.

“From an organisational point of view, this is not effective use of our resources.

“What we have witnessed in academe worldwide is a dramatic change in the profile of administrative staff: the secretaries are gone, and the senior and special advisors have taken over. These changes are mostly externally driven, and the formal demands with respect to accountability are a key explanation.”

Stensaker said market-driven reforms in higher education have also been important drivers for the administrative growth seen in the areas of communication and legal departments.

“Universities perceive that they are in a more competitive setting where branding and fund-raising have become more important activities,” he said.

View from Finland

Esa Hämäläinen, director of administration and secretary general of the board at the University of Helsinki in Finland and former chair of HUMANE (Heads of University Management and Administration Network in Europe), Europe’s international network for education professionals, said administrative staff were vital for the success of any university.

“In Finland we have lived a decade of streamlining and efficiency measures due to cuts in higher education budgets. For example, at the University of Helsinki we have come down from around 20% to 14% admin staff. Typically, we have witnessed process re-engineering, specialisation, consolidation, shared and joint services and, naturally, digitalisation.”

Hämäläinen said that at the same time external funding and collaboration with partners had raised expectations and universities have been recruiting in areas such as fundraising, grant-writing, innovation services, institutional intelligence and service design expertise.

“Currently we see a dire need to concentrate on employee experience. Competition for qualified staff has been getting harder, and the universities want to be known as excellent places to work manifesting professionalisation, career advancement as well as celebrating diversity and family-friendliness.”