Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Academic v general staff

The growing cost of administration caused another, really quite disturbing, tension. Sadly, a culture of mistrust unfolded between academic and general staff. I have been both. Since the 1990s I have had general staff positions at every level from two to eight (for those who are unfamiliar with this remnant of public service culture, this range is from very low to quite high on a scale of one to ten) and academic staff positions that include the full spectrum of casual teaching, part-time research-only work and permanent full-time teaching research combinations, based in academic Faculties (spanning science, social science and the humanities) and central university units.  What this means, though, is that I have not only seen, but I have also felt the tensions from both sides of the fence.

For academics, a great deal has changed quickly and it all seems to have resulted in more work for them, but more resources for administration. Many academic colleagues from a variety of institutions have pointed that their student numbers have increased significantly, administrative staff even more so, but the number of academics has not kept pace with student growth at all. Exact figures exist – between 2008 and 2012 at the Australian Catholic University, student numbers increased by 56 per cent, but academic staff by only 24 per cent. In that time frame, by contrast, administrative staff increased by 67 per cent.  This seems compelling, but numbers, as we know, can be complicated things. These figures for example do not really tell us what it was like before (whether administration was severely short-handed, for example) and do not indicate any shift of administrative tasks from academics to general staff that may have taken place.

But the sentiment it expresses is a trope in the ‘Jeremiad’ literature too. The university seems to have been taken over by administrators. A loss of esteem and power is associated with this, with a corresponding gain by managers, marketing professionals and accountants. Academics have not made this up, it has happened. One symbol, a senior and very esteemed professor told me, was that when searching vainly for a car parking spot on campus he passes many spaces reverently reserved for non-academic managers. Academics, according to the literature on ‘academic capitalism’ have become plug-and-play ‘content specialists’ now seemingly ancillary to the real purpose of the university, which is to run itself.  This is the ‘university of excellence’ that American scholar Bill Readings critiqued in the famous 1990s book The University in Ruins – a kind of non-university, where its purpose (in alignment to the postmodern condition) has disappeared from its core, and where it does not in fact do anything but be ‘excellent’.

The casualization of academic labour seems a symptom of this and also contributes to the tension between academics and general staff. More scholars are employed as casuals in Australia than have part-time or permanent jobs. They look at the relative security of staff who have not had the additional strain, time and financial cost of completing a PhD and feel that the university system has betrayed them. Far from a community of scholars, collectively responsible for the quality and value of university knowledge, scholars (both casual and not) feel themselves to be treated as a highly trained proletariat fulfilling every (sometimes ill-informed) desire of a set of less-qualified administrators.

While many academics deserve more respect and understanding than they feel they are currently getting, in other regards it is an improvement on the past. The situation I saw, even in the 1990s, was one where demure secretaries called every academic by their full title, while they were ‘girls’ known only by their first name. As a young 20-something administrator, senior professors expected me not only to stop my work, no matter how urgent, to make them a coffee, but also to entertain them with (often slightly sexualised) chit-chat for as long as they wished. A more professional respect for administrative staff was a long time coming, I think.

Nevertheless, the literature recounting academics’ litany of complaints, as I’ve mentioned several times, is significant. I shall turn to the feelings of those on the other side, the now-highly professional and often substantially educated general staff. A somewhat caricatured version of their commonly-voiced view of academics is that scholars are arrogant divas, always claiming that some policy should not apply to them, never wanting to do anything that every other employee in the country is required to do (like undergo performance management or use company branding), is unprepared to participate in training that would make them better teachers or more sensitive to Aboriginal students, and unavailable whenever the university asks them to help with something. Then, these whining recalcitrants believe they should be running the place, even though their administrative skills prevent them even from filling in a basic form without assistance and they are often incapable of using equipment as simple as a photocopier. ‘Collegial’ management is chaotic, wasteful and often alarmingly self-interested. It is high time, some maintain, that universities clamped down on these arrogant academics and made them toe the line.

From the perspective of professional behaviour among academics they do, we must somewhat reflectively admit, have a point. Nevertheless, we should also acknowledge that there were benefits to the structural ideal of the community of scholars in protecting university knowledge. It may have caused patterns of behaviour that to outsiders appeared crazy, but to many academics they seem so obvious that they feel outraged at any alternative suggestion.

This is why the universities are in such a mess. The structures that academics have been trained to value completely contradict the structures in which they work. It is time to consider what these structures are.

[from here I talk about three fascinating interacting economies in the university that have emerged since the 1980s…but to read those bits you'll have to wait for the book. Hahahaha *evil laugh*]

--- This is a short segment of the first draft of Chapter 7: The DVC Epidemic in the book I'm writing, Knowing Australia: a history of the modern university, for UNSW Press ---

1 comment:

M-H said...

Like you, I have been on many sides of this complex argument in my working life, in two different countries. One of the things that I think Universities are failing to do well is to cope with the pace of change, and this is true of both academic and non-academic staff. Somehow the entrenched systems, that have worked for at decades (and that includes major IT infrastructure and physical buildings), have to be made to be more open and - the current word seems to be - agile. The question to me is not whether collegial systems or bureaucratic/managerial systems should dominate University life, it's how to get what feel like very different systems to play nicely together. It shouldn't be beyond the wit of intelligent, educated, sophisticated people like university staff to do this. But it does feel very difficult from where I sit.