Administrators are draining university resources – Study

Highly educated administrators at Swedish higher education institutions increased by 4,000 people (from 6,000 to just over 10,000) or by 68% from 2004 to 2019, compared with little change in researcher and teacher numbers, and a 10% rise in student numbers, according to a research paper.

While the staff budget share for administrative staff rose from 6% to 20%, the total staff budget for academic staff fell from 68% to 62%, leading the paper’s author, Anders Kärnä, to argue that a continuation of the trend would weaken research and teaching at the universities.

“Thus, there are more students for each teacher, but fewer students for each bureaucrat,” he writes in the report.

The study (in Swedish), published at the end of August by the Centre for Business and Policy Studies (SNS) in Stockholm, has been discussed on social media, with people giving suggestions about what administrative tasks should be scrapped.

The report is a follow-up to an earlier report, “Ballooning Bureaucracy: Tracking the growth of high-skilled administration within Swedish higher education”, that Kärnä co-wrote with Fredrik Andersson and Henrik Jordahl in 2021.

In Swedish newspaper Svenska Dagbladet on 28 August, Kärnä published an op-ed article headlined “Cut down on the costs of universities’ expensive bureaucrats” in which he said the number of highly educated administrators in the country’s universities and colleges had increased almost seven times as fast as the number of researchers and teachers during the period 2004-19.

Referring to the SNS report, he said: “In particular general administrators, communicators, human resources and IT personnel have increased, while the number of librarians has remained almost constant over time.”

Kärnä’s research shows a decrease in less qualified administrative staff, such as secretaries, over the study period.

“This in turn suggests that Swedish higher education over-allocates resources to highly skilled administration,” he argued.

Kärnä’s research, based on detailed registry data on all individuals working at Swedish universities and colleges, suggests that the increase in highly qualified administrative staff could partly be financed by a “substantial reduction in professions that can be replaced by digital technology”.

However, he says that the time that teachers and researchers spend on doing administration themselves has not decreased during this period, suggesting that the additional administrative bureaucracy does not seem to be reducing the time that academic staff spend on administration.

This means that the increased amount of funding now being directed to administration could have “negative effects on funding available in other areas, perhaps leading to a decrease in research output and teaching quality, with negative long-term effects on technological development”.

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