I was forwarded a fascinating recent paper on the optimal number of university administrators written by Martin and Hill who looked at public research universities in the US (the Carnegie I and II universities). The key result that they disclose in their abstract is that “the optimal staffing ratio is approximately three tenure track faculty members for every one full time administrator”.
You may wonder what the existing ratio in Australia is. I calculated this number myself, with help of my then research assistant Ben Hancock, for a presentation for the Australian Conference of Economists in 2011. What we did was take 5 universities in Australia, take 50 staff at random from each of their phone books and see whether they were doing administrative tasks or research/teaching. It turned out that 56% of staff were administrators. And this number counts many part-time and casual academics as part of the academics, so we are already using a methodology that is more generous to the number of academics than Martin and Hill. Using that methodology we are close to a ratio of two administrators per academic rather than the optimal one of one administrator per three academics. Interestingly, the existing ratio of administrators is a bit higher at the Technical universities than at the GO8′s but not by much.
How many more administrators do we hence have on average than Martin and Hill say is optimal? If you start with the existing number of research/teaching staff and then apply their optimal ratio, then universities have 41% too much staff in total, equivalent to 73% of all administrators in Australian universities. Another way to put this is that if you accept the Martin and Hill results as also being optimal for Australian universities, then there is a cost savings of around 41% to be had in Australian universities.
The deeper issue of the poor governance structures that have allowed the administrator explosion in Australia is of course an area where economics, and in particular economic theory, would seem to have an exceptionally fruitful area of application.