The ratio between the two cohorts has long been a contentious issue in Australian university circles.
IF you think the hallowed halls of Australian public universities are filled with more academic staff than administrators, then you are wrong.
Australian universities, with their New Zealand counterparts, are global anomalies because the number of higher education professional staff outstrips the number of academics across most institutions.
The Blessing or Bloat report by The New Zealand Initiative says on average 55 per cent of all employees in Australian public universities comprise non-academic appointments – administrators and support staff.
In New Zealand, the figure is 59 per cent.
The reverse is true for comparable institutions in the UK and US, where 55 per cent of all staff appointments are to academic positions.
In Australian universities, the terms non-academic, general, administrative and professional are often used interchangeably to describe the cohort of employees who fall outside the broad academic categories of teaching-only staff, research-only staff and teaching and research staff.
Professional staff might include senior executives, managers and advisers, administrative officers, finance and human resources personnel, marketing and communications staff, librarians and information technology employees.
The 2021 Commonwealth Department of Education data provide a breakdown of the type of appointments at Australian universities, including the four public institutions in Western Australia.
Edith Cowan University appears to have the highest percentage of administrative staff, with 63 per cent of its full-time equivalent staff designated as ‘other’ – meaning an employee sits outside the academic staff categories.
ECU is followed by Murdoch University, which has 61 per cent of its FTE categorised as other, and Curtin University (59 per cent). The University of Western Australia has 53 per cent.
The ratio of academic to general staff has long been a contentious issue in university circles.
A growing number of those in the university community believe the institutions are experiencing an ‘administrative bloat’.
They argue introducing significant, expensive administrative structures too often comes at the cost of the pursuit and development of knowledge, which in turn places the institution’s core mission at risk.
They maintain unnecessary policies, over-regulation and burdensome procedures have resulted in general staff being appointed for every imaginable administrative activity.
They point to the growing number of executives occupying administrative roles and not contributing to teaching or research but driving unnecessary and increasing managerialism.
While 30 years ago a vice-chancellor, deputy vice-chancellor and dean might have been the only administrators to be seated around the university’s executive table, these days they are likely to be joined by senior deputy vice-chancellors, provosts, pro vice-chancellors, assistant pro vice-chancellors, vice presidents and executive deans along with armies of support staff.
Even at the individual school level there are often deans, associate deans and heads whose sole functions are to direct the academics.
But for every member of a university community who complains of administrative staff bloat there is another who will tell you general staff play an increasingly important role, principally by freeing up academic staff to focus on teaching and research.
The number of administrative staff needed to effectively manage a university will always depend on what is on an institution’s radar at any one time.
A university engaged in an intensive building program, for example, might require a team of architects, project managers and facilities professionals to oversee the works.
A relatively young university might need more marketing personnel to boost enrolments to a sustainable level.
An institution with a large percentage of overseas students could hire additional general staff to administer its international activities.
In terms of the difference in professional staff-to-academics ratio at Australian universities compared with those in the UK and US, it is worth considering another ratio to put matters into perspective: the number of administrators employed on a per-student basis.
The Bless or Bloat report says there is one non-academic staff member for every five students in the US and one for every 11 students in the UK.
This compares with ratios of one-to-18 in New Zealand and one-to-24 in Australia.
This might suggest Australian universities manage their administrative operations far more efficiently than some of their global counterparts.
• Professor Gary Martin is chief executive officer of the Australian Institute of Management WA