Bad Administration

Perhaps the best leader article I have read in the Times Higher Education these last several years can be found here.

Red Tape: A Form of Distrust

Academics are vociferous in their condemnation of bureaucracy, especially when it tries to measure the unmeasurable. Obviously, higher education must be accountable to its public paymasters, but if the audit becomes the goal, human nature is such that people will put more effort into the things that can be audited – never mind the quality, feel the paperwork. And even the Quality Assurance Agency does not assure quality; it merely ensures that the correct processes are in place to deliver it.

But banal and mind-numbing though it is, bureaucracy isn’t neutral. It is insidious, changing the nature of both teaching and research; it also, of course, has been used to push academics in uncomfortable directions.

The comments after the article make interesting reading. It appears that University administrators think the academics should stop bloody whingeing and fill in all those excellently-designed forms the administrators send them – and which the Faculty Education Management Committee’s  Student Experience And Feedback Monitoring Oversight Subcommittee  spent so many productive hours designing –  more carefully.

Which is what I would call a:  “Getting the Point Epic Fail

A senior academic commenting as “Mark” sums it up for me:

“In so many cases, the main justification for the paper work is that “we have to be seen to be doing”.  In other words, it doesn’t actually matter if the monitoring is working, it just matters that we have a sufficient paper trail to prove to others that we are doing it.”


Now back to filling in those overdue online forms for our latest internal “Research Performance Audit.”



10 Responses to “Bad Administration”

  1. Dr Grumble Says:

    Forgive me for cutting and pasting these words from the leading article you link to but they strike a chord:

    Working for the public sector was once considered important, almost noble, a dedication to a greater good. Today it is viewed with suspicion, and it is the public sector and its workers that are faced with cuts that are the regrettable cost to the UK of saving the banking sector and getting the country through the recession. It is as though those who go into the City and make millions are working for the greater good. The reversal is a foolish one and a shame for our country.

    The words above sum things up very well. Whether you’re a teacher, an academic, a doctor or some other government worker you will no longer be valued as you once were. You will be seen as a drain on society – somebody who the real workers, like those in the city, have to support. Yet sometimes it is difficult to see what these so-called real workers are actually producing. And we all know the damage they have done. Meanwhile genuine real workers – people who make things – have been left to wither as though manufacturing is also no longer laudable. Our society has lost its values and direction and with an election coming up there is no hope of a party with alternative views.

    How much extra value can you wring from all this measuring and auditing? Can you turn a bad teacher into a good teacher with all these student online assessments of teaching quality? I don’t think you can. Are junior doctors any better trained as a result of the boxes we now tick on them? Of course not. I blame computers. None of this would be possible if we still had typewriters, but we should not be doing it just because it is possible.

  2. guthrie Says:

    I am wondering as well about all this rubbish. It seems to be part of a wider attack on professionalism in all spheres, whereby the actual job itself is devalued in every way possible and reduced to box-ticking as much as possible. At the same time the professional is required to spend more time meeting managerial targets and paperwork for their new managed. Basically instead of leaving people to get on with things, and some oversight to make sure they aren’t killing patients, we now have micromanagement in order to maximise something. Which leads to even more jobs for highly paid managers, but less work for everyone else.

    Moreover, within science and engineering there are highly paid specialisms, but the tendency is always to push for brain dead box ticking and managers. Thus the only way you can earn a decent wage is by becoming a manager, even if what you want to do is science and that is what you are good at.

  3. Dr No Says:

    This is classic goal displacement; and classic mistaking the finger pointing at the moon for the moon. And it is also a creep weapon (as in a means to bring about creep).

  4. Sceric Says:

    you may well, all be perfectly right in condemning the form filling and monitoring praxis in the public sector or at research centers, as I don’t know enough about the structures there. And even in companies you quite often have a monitoring and controlling going on for the sake of itself without any real use, but I think one shouldn’t forget that monitoring (in the sense of watching over something) a project can help staying in budget, or potentially – if you’re already “Betriebsblind” – is “process blinded” the right translation here?) – help see if you’re still aiming a feasible goal.

    Just my impression and yes I just complained today about the 10 forms I had to fill in, before my sales order could get processed….Sceric

  5. guthrie Says:

    If you read the police blogs you’ll find they are victims of this sort of managerialism as well. Now of course the police need some supervision, but it seems to have gotten quite bad during new labours last 10 years. On the other hand I think it seems clear that new labour people have no great game plan beyond short sighted “we think it will work best and we are always right” and an adherence to dogma. Hence the creep – they never stop and think what they are actually aiming for, they just try and meet a (mostly imagined) demand or danger.

  6. draust Says:

    Thanks all for the comments.

    Dr G (and Dr No): the analogies with healthcare were clear, of course – health care is obviously a lot farther down the road than Univs. But as you allude, it seems to be universal in the public sector, see e.g. Guthrie’s comments about the police. It certainly used to come through strongly in the police blogs, and indeed in other public service ones.

    On the THE comments thread, there is a good re-posted comment from “Cardinal Newman”, which contains the rather apposite line:

    “…more implicit knowledge to be clumsily transformed into a list of peremptory ‘indicators’ “

    – which also reminds me (in the medical sense) of protocols, something I guess Dr G and I have talked about before.

    I actually remember “Cardinal Newman’s” comment from the first time it appeared, and remember reading the article he suggests looking for (NB – PDF) and thinking it contained a lot of truth.

    One of the hazards in Universities, and perhaps also elsewhere, is the imposition of these systems by a cabal of the admin people, who gain power by being the ones charged with implementing all this stuff, and a small cadre of senior academics (or clinicians in the NHS) who are on “Management Teams” for various activities. These latter folk are the keys to resisting all this managerialism, but too often they acquiesce and become 9as I see it) part of the problem.

    When we Poor Bloody Infantry question all this box-ticking, we are typically told that “We have to have this”, often for “statutory reasons”. We are also often told it is “efficient”, though we are not convinced. As the commenter Mark puts it at the THE:

    “If this new system of administration (which results in more work for me) makes things easier for the admin staff, then why has the number of admin staff increased so significantly in recent years?”

    And it goes without saying that I agree with Dr G that all the form-filling / box-ticking has not really improved what is “delivered”. Which is a central point for oversight systems. I take Eric’s point that any oversight system is not by definition bad, and there are some that people look at and go “well, we needed something like that, though I wouldn’t have done it that way”. But far too much now is stuff that we look at and go:

    “Well, that is a total waste of time as now we will have to enter the same stuff twice, when it was pointless entering it the first time.”

    And the most serious point of all, which I think is part of what Dr No is getting at, is that collection of all this kind of box-ticking gives the bosses a new way of picking on people they don’t like. In an earlier “professional” world, to get you into trouble they had to be able to show you were demonstrably sub-standard at your actual job. In the future, they will conceivably only have to show that you do not tick all the boxes on the online forms that they have decreed are their preferred indicators of whether you are good at your job. The difference is potentially significant, especially in the context of subordinating the professions to the management.

  7. draust Says:

    PS for Guthrie – there has certainly been much more of this stuff in the New Labour years, but in the Univs there is no doubt the audit/oversight started under the Tories, going back to Mrs Thatcher. Whether the huge growth in it reflects the political slant of the Govt, or the times… Hmmm.

    I certainly know people, especially clinicians, who routinely denounce “NuLab control freakery” and think the Tories would be less micro-managing. I am not convinced, personally. My experience of Univs was that the Tories believed in “letting managers manage, and that therefore the Audit Mania was policy across the board (politically) since it was a feature of the way professionals (except possibly lawyers) are now managed within large organisations.

    Anyway, like Dr Grumble and the Jobbing Doctor, I am having difficulties thinking of any party worth voting for. A month or two back I wrote to one of my academic friends about the two main UK parties that:

    “..You can’t get a cigarette paper between them on most things”

    And I haven’t seen anything since to make me change my mind.

    * sigh *

  8. Sceric Says:

    @Dr. Aust

    “And the most serious point of all, which I think is part of what Dr No is getting at, is that collection of all this kind of box-ticking gives the bosses a new way of picking on people they don’t like. In a…”

    I see your point, but I would say, that this make it not only easier for a boss to get rid of some people. From an anecdotal, personal experience I know, that there are people out there, that are good in "box-ticking" and extremely bad in job, they should do, so getting rid of them is more difficult, as they are good in the measureable ("box-tickable") part of their jobs.

  9. Dr Grumble Says:

    It has been clear to me for some time that the university as we once knew it is dying. It has been destroyed by McDonaldisation, an all-pervading religion which is sweeping the world. Universities have become contract research organisations instead of places of learning. The high academic ideals of the past are no longer valued – managers are actually dismissive of them. We know that they are of inestimable value to society but because their value cannot be measured they do not count.

    The difficulties we are having in finding a party worth voting for stem from the fact that politicians of all parties are devotees of the prophet Ronald McDonald.

  10. guthrie Says:

    I’m a bit late returning …
    but thank you for your comments regarding the universities in the time before I was old enough to go to university. I quite agree that it didn’t start with new labour, and think that it is all to do with having special business coloured lenses through which to view things. Which is what makes new labour people so bad, because either they have no experience of business and therefore make it up, or they started in opposition to business (eg unions) and in order to keep their places have to go to the opposite extreme in terms of boot licking.

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