What is the optimal number of university administrators?


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.

34 Responses to "What is the optimal number of university administrators?"
  1. good point, Paul. I think you would be hard pressed to find another university in the top 100 as bureaucratic as their G8 peers. This is a huge issue. This report (http://www.lhmartininstitute.edu.au/insights-blog/2012/06/90-trends-in-non-academic-staff-for-australian-universities-2000-to-2010) shows the 2010 ratio of non-academic to academic to be 1.2:1 across Australia. This is unsustainable. IF we look to international benchmarks, the really really rich universities like Harvard (32 billion dollars compared to less than 2 billion dollars for Unimelb for example) have almost a 1:1 ratio.

    No matter how you slice it, I think there is a serious case for reform here in Australia. The crucial question is, what’s the value added of more administrative staff? If we’re honest, pushing it further beyond the optimal level imposes further externalities on academic staff and students — more overhead, more forms to fill out, more meetings to attend, etc. And this is passed directly to the student (and the taxpayer). Admin ratios are far too high and academic staff to student ratios are far too low. How prudent is it to have a upper level quant class with 500 students juxtaposed against a whole slew of “Assistant Engagement Officer (Applied Focus), Assistant Event Coordinator (Theoretical Focus) , etc. ” Ironically, despite all these administrators, it’s impossible to get an answer to anything. Try ringing up student services and asking a simple question, “well, let me call Bill, he can answer that”. Of course, Bill e-mails you back and says talk to Liz and by the time it’s all over with you’ve spoken to 20 people and wasted an entire day just trying to find the answer to a question that should be on the website. You conclude that the best option is to avoid all interaction with administrative staff and simply plead ignorance when you break one of the ever changing rules and regulations.

    • so true. The first thing your friends tell you when you enter a university here is ‘don’t ask for permission, ask for forgiveness’. You find out after a while that everybody knows it.
      You are also quite right that the cost is ultimately borne by the students and our society as a whole. The students get less than they should and society pays more than it should.
      Let me give you a good tip so you can spot who is who in this debate: watch for the words ‘chronic underfunding of universities’ and ask yourself how much money is the person using the term making and how much would they reasonably earn elsewhere……

    • ps. the 1.2 ratio bandied around by those who lazily accept the numbers the universities themselves give out is quite wrong. It includes on the academic side many sessional and part-time staff, whilst on the administrator side lacks all the consultants, visitation committees, and other administrator activities outside of the staff lists. The true ratio is much more like 2 to 1. The ratio I found by just going through the phone books of 1.3:1 was already being exceedingly generous….

  2. How many administrators per student do Australian universities have compared with the US universities? You assume that the high ratio of administrators to academics is because Australian universities have too many administrators. Perhaps we have too few academics? (Or, more likely, it’s both.) I suspect Australian universities have higher student to academic staff ratios than US public research universities.

    • Well, Roger, in order to get to the ratio that is optimal by hiring more academics rather than shedding administrators, universities would have to hire 4 times more academics than they have, requiring an approximate doubling of their staff budgets.
      Doubling the number of academics and halving the number of administrators would also do it, at almost no effect on the budget. That would halve the student to academic ratio too!

      • The second one seems like the most politically viable option given the paltry sum the government is willing to commit to higher education. You know , it’s odd how much concern in this country is placed on the secondary school system (Gonski, etc.) which by international standards is very good when you have Universities (mis)operating the way they do — bureaucratic largess and poor student satisfaction across the board. We are always whining about how important teachers and class sizes are but Universities seem to be immune from the whole debate. We no longer live in a world where having a strong back and the ability to read the newspaper is a good plan for national education — we need to ensure quality education is being delivered beyond 12th grade. Seems the preoccupation of the top brass inside the Uni system (the admin on 800k a year) is advertising on busses and printing out glossy pamphlets to massage the deluge of overseas students while simultaneously paring back on the academic offerings. I wouldn’t be surprised if future programs just involved core courses in commerce and the breadth was left to EdX or one of the other MOOCS…. maybe you could have an Australian honours supervisor. The outcome would probably be better for most students.

  3. If academics keep whinging about doing administrative tasks, this is what you get!

    But seriously, it is just another example of incentives and bureaucracies. They become entrenched so easily. Even with the information revolution upon us, with online universities springing up with automated admin processes, we still have the burden. Oh well.

    And if you haven’t heard of it, my favourite ‘Law of Triviality’ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parkinson's_Law_of_Triviality

  4. It is more what administrators do than their number. Administrators tend to be scarce at the level where real work is done in the universities – teaching, computer services for example – but to proliferate in Faculty offices and Central Administrations where inept education offices, marketing managers, research managers and the rest proliferate. There they perform limited useful purposes – how do you “manager research and/or teaching”? – and generally act to reduce the effectiveness of teaching and research though their poorly thought out ideas and their incessant demands to hold inconsequential meetings.

    The crazy ideas they come up with for reorganisations and curriculum design reduce the effectiveness of universities and lead to significant amounts of academic effort and angst simply in trying to retain some notion of a university’s ideals. Most of the ideas are presented without evidence to back them up and from an inexperienced perspective. The phoney business language used (“consumer orientated”, “marketing”), the exaggerated claims of excellence, the wasted time at meetings are nausea-inducing for anyone with any sense and encourage academics to leave the profession. (The last point not a joke – people are leaving academe mainly through dissatisfaction with administrators, many others are worn out with the stupidity and remain silently contemptuous).

    I think a broad reason for the slow growth in productivity in Australia over the past decade has been the growth of managerialism throughout our society. The MBA society where people can be trained to administer things they have no experience of – is failing. But while many firms are promoting the idea of flatter administrative structures many universities are working in the opposite direction of ridding institutions of the last vestiges of collegiality and making them increasingly hierarchical. Universities are being turned into low grade businesses run by administrators devoid of business sense.

    Control of university degrees should be put back into the hands of academics who profess their discipline and removed from Deans and Vice chancellors. Reforms should work from academics to administrators and not the reverse. Redundant administrators could be encouraged to depart or, if that is not feasible, offered prolonged, subsidised business class travel in regions distant from the university. Deans should ALL do at least some limited teaching and should survive – as they did in the past – with a single assistant and a telephone.

    • Yep, agreed with most of that. Any ideas on how to actually make reforms come about though? I can’t see any realistic scenario under which we get back to the system we had 30 years ago.

      • Paul, Plenty of ideas – more democratic councils, assigning academics to administrative positions for limited periods, throwing bricks at anyone who mutters “global excellence/internationally competitive” or who talks stupidly about KPIs, “meeting markets” etc – but THE central one is to seek to reestablish a certain amount of idealism within the universities and rejecting the notion that the destruction of core values (of promoting scholarship and a sound, reliable education) is inevitable.

        Winding back the bureaucratisation of the universities is made difficult by the fact that, although almost every academic opposes what has happened, most see it as inevitable or are plain fearful of expressing their views and opposing managerialism. Deans, VCs are aware of this and continue on with mindless power-building exercises, reorganisations and devotion to inappropriate business models.

        • Harry, I dont disagree with any of the sentiment here, but how can any of these things be achieved? The commonwealth does not have the power to change the composition of university councils because those things are mainly matters of the individual states. The state ministers on the other hand dont control the money stream. We have to be realistic about the constraints here and call for something that can be done.

  5. As a point of domestic comparison, the for-profit education provider Navitas spends 41% of it salary budget on non-academic staff, compared to universities which spend 48%. So an organisation with a good incentive to reduce costs (it is a listed company) but with far fewer functions than a university (no research labs or libraries, no public service mission, no need to consult a dozen stakeholders before making a decision, no time spent filling in forms to get government grants, etc) still has pretty high non-academic staff costs.
    The proportion of non-academic staff now is the same as it was 30 years ago, though as Harry says the way they are deployed may affect academic perceptions of the overall situation.

    • See the above comments, Andrew: the numbers you cite are heavily tainted. Lots of non-academics are counted as academics in those numbers (because nearly all the ‘managers’ also call themselves ‘professors’), many non-academics are outside of the numbers (consultants, visitations) and salary is not the same as renumeration.

    • Non-academic staff is not necessarily non-academic staff. I haven’t looked into Navitas but I assume it is similar to earlier for-profit providers in the USA; lots of this staff is in marketing broadly construed, central curriculum development, and the like. Plus academics in those institutions are quite different from those in more traditional institutions, affecting the share an institution has to spend on them. See (sorry for the plug) Capital Romance: Why Wall Street Fell in Love with Higher Education. Education Economics, 2001, vol. 9, no. 3, s. 293 – 311; here: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/09645290110086153.

      • Andreas – Staff classification is a problem that affects both data sources as Paul seems to have only two categories, academic and ‘administrator’ (if you are saying curriculum development is probably counted by Navitas as non-academic). Navitas would do a lot of marketing, though it is pretty much in bed with the public unis, running pathway programs to their courses and in the case of Curtin directly delivering a Curtin qualification. It is a very different organisation to a public university, but an interesting data point given the apparent assumption in this thread that teaching can be delivered with a small group of non-academic support staff.

  6. The financial figures are employee benefits and on-costs (and a correction the 2011 data came out last week, which brings non-academic staff to 46.8% of all benefits). I have no doubt that efficiencies could be made, at an institutional level and in policy, such as getting rid of many data and application heavy funding programs. But many institutional changes with scope to remove functions and save time would be things that academics would hate – such as replacing decentralised, consultation and meeting-heavy decision making processes with executive authority, as would exist in an organisation like Navitas. When I worked for a VC, these things took up an amazing amount of his and our time. But given the nature of universities as organisations, I am not convinced that getting rid of them is a good idea.

    Academics love to complain about administration; it is one of the constant themes of university histories. We can all find examples of ridiculous management decisions and language. But I think the longer-run perspective is that improved university management has substantially increased research and teaching productivity. There is a basic assumption in many of these critiques that things were fine before ‘managerialism’ took over. I think this is just wrong – universities were under-performing institutions costing taxpayers far too much money. It had to change, and it did.

    • same source for the numbers, Andrew: the university administrations themselves. As I made clear in the post, the numbers are cooked and one has to dig oneself if one doesnt want to end up doing the bidding of others. It helps to actually go through the phone books and see who really works for the university and what they do. It also helps having a look at what is actually being produced by these administrators.

      As to what is counted as an academic, just ask yourself whether the acting dean research is an academic or not? As far as I have been able to find the fine-print that person is counted an academic but yet does no teaching or research. Same for deans, pro-DVCs, acting DVCs, senior DVCs, deputy heads, etc. There are many more of these than before, all counted in their own statistics as academics with huge salaries. And which category of academics has increased? Casuals and temps.

      And guess whose relative pay has sky-rocketed over the last few decades?

  7. I think it would be fairer to say that data collection definitions have trouble dealing with the complexity of what staff actually do than that the books are cooked. Many of the people you call ‘administrators’ are actively involved in teaching and research production as librarians, lab assistants, IT support etc. There are more managers with academic titles than 30 years ago, but we are talking about a few dozen extra at most in organisations with thousands of employees.
    As I said before, I am not saying that there is no problem – but that its nature and scale is far less self-evident than public statements by academics would suggest. I have not seen evidence of a big increase in either administrative staff in particular or general staff more broadly as a % of all staff, especially in the context of many new or greatly enlarged functions such as IT, marketing/recruitment, and legal compliance (of which higher ed specific is just a part – health and safety, environmental etc etc is all much greater than before).

  8. “But … the longer-run perspective is that improved university management has substantially increased research and teaching productivity. There is a basic assumption in many of these critiques that things were fine before ‘managerialism’ took over. I think this is just wrong – universities were under-performing institutions costing taxpayers far too much money. It had to change, and it did”.

    Andrew, There is at best inconsistent evidence for these claims. I think the only clear winner from recent reforms is that teaching quality has improved which disproves your claim that critics think that all things were fine before managerialism took over. I disagree that research productivity has increased – at least in the fields I am aware of. I have never changed any aspect of my research agenda on the basis of the exhortations of an unpublished bureaucrat or of an Executive Dean for Research. Yes tutorials now contain 22 students (or are not held at all) whereas in 1969 they had 6 or 7. That is cost cutting not a productivity gain particularly since the quality of student intakes has gone down on average.

    Deans areas did once consist of an office and an assistant. Now they typically occupy in space the area of entire schools and departments. Please walk around your university and observe.

    In my area we have had about 10 reorganisations in a bit over 20 years. None have had any academic rationale – often they followed a new appointment who wanted to “run the broom” through the place – more typically they were used as an excuse to degrade curricula. Criticising dealing with distant bureaucrats who meddle in your work but who have no understanding of what you are doing is not “loving to complain”- it is just reflects the daily reality of academic life.

  9. Harry – I think the productivity evidence is consistent – more annual publications per academic, more graduates per staff member, higher student satisfaction. What we can’t say for sure is whether or not there has been a decline in aspects of higher education value adding that we can’t or don’t measure directly. But from the student’s perspective, until recently there has been no deterioration in key outcomes such as employment levels and salary premiums. But the recent decline may reflect cyclical factors, or what you call low quality student intakes struggling at the margins to find high-skill work, rather than any worsening in outcomes for the core group of higher-level students.

    • Sure we’re all publishing more. My publication rate has increased from around 3 per year at the start of my career to 5 or more times that near the end. That is not a measure of research productivity – it is a measure of verbal diarrhea. I know of no serious researchers who believe that their productivity of ideas has increased. Rather most I talk to complain that they are having to go for low-hanging fruit rather than hard problems because of the need to achieve the metrics imposed by the administration. In this case the government is largely to blame for paying for publications.

      • And so we get the ERA process to provide some check on quality. No accountability/incentive system can be perfect. But my view is that the old “trust us” model was worse than anything that came later – especially on teaching, where self-motivation was lower, but also in research with too many academics having little observable output.

  10. Paul: your “phone book” sampling methodology was random but not really systematic, which limits the generalisability, validity and inferences of your findings. What about confirmation and representativeness biases? There are institutional factors and variation in academic-administrator ratios as well — processes and strategic investment portfolios must also be considered. Be careful about the “evil administrator” stereotype (http://www.insidehighered.com/blogs/university-venus/who-%E2%80%9Cadmin%E2%80%9D-you-speak-some-myths-alternative-academics). There are many HEW administrators who work hard, do research, deal with managerialism, and have professional expertise (http://www.alexburns.net/2012/06/22/22nd-june-2012-whackademia/). They don’t get academic benefits, salaries, or protection during reorganisation.

    • In my university – a Go8 – administrators have more real security than academics, and many are paid at close to professorial level, and often higher. They are not measured for quality of teaching, number of publications, grant funding, or anything else. What administrator is told to bring in several times their salary – or else? Yet that is the norm in my School for associate/professors. As to academic benefits, do you mean the ability to travel economy class to meetings using our hard won research income while administrators travel business class to attend “research administrators conferences” and stay in top hotels on the overhead?

  11. Harry: Thanks for your perspective. At a Faculty level, I facilitate academic research programs via: (1) professional expertise (research, publishing, project management, grants); (2) developmental editing and mentoring; and (3) handling the administrative burden for academics. I deal with 80 academics so I see a lot of different research, publications, and competitive grants, where there are scope and scale benefits. I also do research and publish. I don’t use MBA language (see Henry Mintzberg and Rakesh Khurana); incessant meeting requests; or the other concerns you raise. I also have to deal with work reorganisations and accountability. So your critique and portrayal doesn’t really fit how some HEW administrators actually work. We see “results” via the growth in academics’ research programs. It’s a two-way street: some academics feel contempt — but administrators can have justifiable frustrations with some academics, as well.

  12. Alex,

    yes, the phone book methodology is also imperfect though it is quick and, as you say, random in that almost everyone is on the phone book and it is easy to spot the ones who are not paid by the university (phone books for instance have unpaid emeriti or adjuncts on it which we of course kicked out).
    Give me 50,000 and I would do it much more precisely, at a fraction of what a consultancy or university themselves could do it for!

    • Paul, do you think and ARC grant would fund that? A better question might be: do you suppose 50,000 would cover the labor required to fill out all the ARC forms?

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