The Burden of Admin and the Rising Cost of Higher Education

4 02 2014

We all know that the cost of providing university education has risen far faster than the rate of inflation. Among academics, the most commonly accepted explanation for this phenomenon is that the number of administrators has grown at a cancerous rate. Professor Tim Burke, an academic in the US, has written a blog post that shows that this complaint isn’t entirely valid. He doesn’t deny that lots of administrators have been hired, but he says that they have been hired mainly because academics have sought to outsource admin tasks to professionals so they could focus on teaching and research.


How did the growth of administration happen? It started happening sixty or so years ago because faculty stopped being able to and willing to do many of the major administrative jobs in colleges and universities as the numbers of students grew dramatically and the nature of academic life changed. When academia stopped looking to faculty to handle admissions and residential life and budgets, it started looking to professionals who had done somewhat similar work in other institutions. And those people professionalized the same way that faculty had professionalized a few decades earlier, the same way that faculty were undergoing intensification of professionalization as their ranks grew and grew in the 1950s and 1960s. The administrators didn’t professionalize because that was part of the Master Plan to Destroy the Faculty, but because that’s what was happening across the whole of the economy and society.

When the growth of admin costs is seen in such terms, it actually appears to be a good thing since it is advancing the division of labour. In other words, Adam Smith would have approved. 

Hat tip to Megan McArdle. 



One response

7 02 2014
J Liedl

There’s also a squeeze whereby many more administrative tasks are expected from universities. The many mandates for reporting to government and/or the general public, for recording, assessing and examining the university’s actions on many levels? Those do add up.

Add to this that those jobs that could be eliminated in support (many secretarial positions, also some cleaning/maintenance) have been or have been outsourced. So more professional positions, proportionally, as others disappear.

We kid ourselves that anything stays the same, even institutions as venerable as universities. They sure don’t look like they did in the thirteenth century or even just a hundred years ago. We shouldn’t be surprised that they don’t offer employment on the model of a generation past, either.

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