What’s the problem ?

In a large-scale international survey on changing work conditions at universities conducted more than a decade ago, professors from Australian universities reported spending more time on administrative duties and less time on teaching than any of their international peers. This is of concern since it suggests that the most senior academics in Australia may have been spending a disproportionate amount of time on administrative matters, and to the detriment of their involvement in the teaching of students.

There is much to suggest that this may just be the tip of the iceberg. At the very least, and considering the entirety of universities’ workforce, the perception is widespread among university staff these days that there has been a steady increase in administrative burden over the years, despite universities’ attempts to become more efficient. Administrative burden inter alia manifests through extensive paperwork and forms that need to be completed to get things done, complex guidelines and regulations, and increasingly burdensome reporting requirements.

The issue of administrative burden needs to be taken seriously by universities, last not least since growing administrative burden can seriously undermine the effectiveness of delivery of their teaching and research activities. Consider the following, typical examples:

examples of administrative burden in teaching

* the process of making changes to subjects taught these days commonly requires multiple levels of approval involving various committees across the entire university. For example, there commonly is a centralised process and extensive on-line paperwork required to make even minor modifications to any assessment requirements for subjects taught. One upshot of this is that relevant change proposals need to be submitted around a year before any changes to subjects can come into effect, thus undermining pedagogical responsiveness and flexibility.

While Australian universities rely heavily upon casual staff for their teaching activities, the associated “onboarding” processes can be burdensome for the staff involved. Onboarding, for example, typically requires casual staff to undertake a range of on-line training programmes on issues such as compliance and the completion of which can take a considerable amount of time. As an extreme example, someone who delivers a guest lecture of one hour may thus be asked to complete several hours of compliance training and for which the issue of remuneration often remains opaque.

examples of administrative burden in research

* perhaps one of the most striking examples for unnecessary administrative burden are universities’ processes for approving research-related travel such as visiting conferences. The main issues here seem to be cumbersome online travel portals used for lodging travel requests and a one-size-fits approach taken when it comes to things like risk assessment. For example, many universities’ ask staff to compile a detailed risk assessment for their own travel even if only visiting a conference in Australia (this practice existed already well before Covid).

* another key area in which administrative burden is seen to have increased considerably is the procurement of equipment and services that directly support research activities. Adding a new supplier to universities’ purchasing systems can be a highly cumbersome and time-consuming administrative task. This not only places a considerable burden on researchers who have to navigate the required paperwork with often only little direct support, but also puts smaller and highly specialised suppliers at a structural disadvantage due to the administrative burden and delays involved.

drivers are

While there is a need for further research, existing studies suggest that there are at least three main drivers associated with increases in administrative burden at Australian universities:

* staff restructuring

recent research has shown that the professional workforce at Australian universities has undergone significant change over recent decades. The key trends identified include a substantial decrease in roles dedicated to administrative and technical support functions alongside a steady increase in management roles. The key implication arising from this is that many of the administrative duties initially performed by dedicated support staff are now handled by more highly paid academic and professional staff themselves, via various online tools, despite these staff often lacking the necessary skillset and routines to do so efficiently and effectively.

* growth in compliance

Changes in Australian universities’ external regulatory environment including the rise of quality assurance (also labelled the “new bureaucracy”) or performance-based governance have been another driver of administrative burden in universities over recent decades. Since universities need to demonstrate compliance with and report against, e.g., various national standards or performance indicators, they frequently resolve to requiring the same of their staff, thus generating considerable administrative burden “at the coalface.”

* automation of administrative tasks

Perhaps most intriguing, there is growing evidence that the automation of administrative tasks within universities can lead to a considerable increase in administrative burden. One the one hand, this may be due to issues with the automated administrative systems themselves. For example, such systems may not be fit for purpose; they may be badly integrated with other existing systems, and they may provide little flexibility to complete complex tasks due to the high levels of standardisation built into them. On the other hand, research suggests that the use of automation may imply that various reporting requirements are directly devolved to frontline staff, thus again increasing administrative burden.

* what is to be done?

Not all administrative burden is necessarily bad, and some degree of administrative burden is and will remain unavoidable given the size and complexity of Australian universities as organisations. At the same time, there are some specific ways in which Australian universities can more effectively respond to the issue of administrative burden than they have done to date.

One first step is wider recognition of administrative burden as an issue detrimentally impacting upon the effectiveness of universities’ core activities.

Unfortunately, some of the ways in which universities currently operate tend to obscure rather than highlight the issue. For example, universities commonly these days rely upon costing tools to calculate the costs (salary and otherwise) associated with their teaching. According to the underlying logic, a small class taught by a professor is often seen as a financial liability given the high hourly salary rate and low levels of “output” involved. Yet the same cost-benefit logic is hardly ever applied if, for instance, the same academic spends a couple of hours or more trying to compile the paperwork for approval of the purchase of some basic lab equipment.

Beyond better recognition of the issue, universities should also move to a more proactive stance when it comes to tackling the issue of administrative burden. In particular, universities should actively facilitate regular bottom-up staff feedback on processes that are seen as burdensome and invite suggestions for improvements. This feedback could also inform whole-of-university initiatives explicitly dedicated to reducing unnecessary administrative burden.

Related to this, there is finally a lot to suggest that universities would be well placed to adopt a more considerate approach to the use of automation. This may involve more extensive user experience testing but ultimately also greater sensitivity to the various burdens newly created through the automation of administrative processes. After all, one feature of the emerging “robotic bureaucracy” within universities is that what may look like increased administrative efficiency if one looks from the top-down may actually look considerably less so the case if one looks from the bottom-up.

Dr Peter Woelert is a Senior Lecturer at the Melbourne Graduate School of Education, University of Melbourne


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