UCL News


Press cutting: Drowning in bureaucracy

27 December 2006

Susanne Kord [Head of UCL German] and Daniel Wilson describe how academics in Britain are hobbled by monitoring and admin, while in the US they get on with the job.

In a recent satirical commentary on British academic life, the sociologist and broadcaster Laurie Taylor conjured up a memo from the director of corporate affairs of the (fictional) University of Poppleton on "Staff Xmas Dinners". New guidelines are to be introduced, requiring that all staff who wish to participate in any such dinner first attend a special SDW (staff development workshop) on social interaction; departments must henceforth submit a statement of DAO (dining aims and outcomes); and all those attending dinners must complete a PDQ (a post-dining questionnaire) "that includes learning outcomes and a TQA (turkey quality assessment)".

If this sounds familiar - if not a turkey quality assessment then a teaching quality assessment - you must be an academic. Such heavy-handed rules and regulations are the reality at British universities today. Thus we were in for a shock when we left prominent American universities over the last decade or so and took up posts as professors in the UK.

There is a great deal about academic life here that we appreciate and consider worth emulating abroad. But we are baffled by the level of monitoring, reporting, evaluating and bureaucratic hassling to which academics in this country are subjected. Our response is to ask: why doesn't Britain let its academics do what they do best, teach and carry out research, without government and university administrators breathing down their necks?

Many British academics groan under the weight of administrative tasks, and they appear to think that this worsening trend is an American one - and American universities are widely held up as a model. US universities have indeed experienced an increase in paperwork in recent decades. But they can't compare with their UK counterparts in terms of sheer zeal for reporting and monitoring.

The problem is that bureaucrats prefer to introduce monitoring and reporting in order to forestall problems that they expect, rather than dealing with the tiny number of such problems that might actually appear. This is evident in the constant reporting on all sorts of things. Instead of the central administration reacting to problems that come to their attention, they expect departments to spell out their activities in mind-numbingly detailed reports - hardly any of which result in any action.

But there is also, more worryingly, a systemic distrust of academics. If lecturers who have been trained for many years can be trusted to teach their courses, why can they not be trusted to assess students' performance without a host of colleagues looking over their shoulder every step of the way? In the US and most other countries it seems to work just fine without these excessive layers of control. While it should be compulsory for lecturers in their first post to be adequately trained and mentored, it seems laughable, if not demeaning, to double- and triple-check every mark on every essay and exam on every course of every lecturer or professor right up to retirement. By stark contrast, even GPs, themselves familiar with appraisals and audits, normally seek a second opinion only when referring a patient to a specialist; otherwise they treat the patient, often with a serious condition or illness, alone.

In the US, panels appointed to interview new colleagues typically consist of three or four staff members from the hiring department. They are, after all, the experts and can certainly be trusted to make the best appointment. In Britain, such panels usually include a vice-chancellor, a dean, a head of another department and often a senior member of the personnel department. Potentially, then, an appointment could be made by a panel whose majority is not from the field for which a candidate is chosen. The present unwieldy system reinforces the notion of academics as unruly youngsters whose every step must be watched and controlled.

The business world seems to be the model for much of what goes on in academia these days, but when we describe this system to business people they inevitably say that no business could survive with this level of monitoring and waste of resources. Academic staff have less and less time for students and research, as polls have shown. If American universities are indeed as superior as some think, it is not only a matter of better funding. In our experience, American lecturers have considerably more time for their students and for research.

British academics seem to be stressed out like no others, and that is bound to diminish their effectiveness and reduce their levels of research output.

While they continue to produce excellent research and are outstanding teachers, despite their administrative overloads, they could do even better - and suffer much less stress in the process - if their talents were directed toward these areas instead of into mounds of useless paperwork. We hear that Britain is seeking to attract foreign academics - but this crushing load of administration is not the way to do it. British universities cannot afford to be complacent if they wish to compete in a global academic marketplace.

A national commission is needed to investigate procedures at UK institutions of higher education with a view to reducing monitoring, reporting, assessment, paperwork - and anything else that really doesn't play a useful role in what universities are, or should be, all about: first-class teaching and world-class research.

The Guardian