A Parallel Universe

Dr James Kierstead
Insights Newsletter
4 August, 2023

A few months ago, I stepped into a parallel universe. I was following up a routine administrative task and soon found myself outside a building I’d never seen before, after 10 years working at Victoria University. When I went inside there was an enormous open office filled with administrators.

When I first arrived at Vic, we had an administrator in the Classics Programme. She knew the academics, she knew the students, and she knew what I was supposed to be doing. About five years later, we were told our administrator would be gone, replaced by a whole pool of administrators at the school level.

Universities have changed over the past couple decades. In the US and elsewhere, there’s a lively debate about what role universities’ administrative bureaucracies have played in these changes.

My colleague Michael Johnston and I wanted to look into non-academic staffing at New Zealand universities. The result is our report Blessing or Bloat? Non-Academic Staffing at New Zealand Universities in Comparative Perspective, which came out this week.

What we found surprised us. The majority of staff at our universities are not lecturers and professors, but non-academic staff. At some universities, non-academics form quite a clear majority; at Vic last year, non-academics made up 61% of total staff, according to the Academic Quality Agency.

New Zealand universities have the highest ratio of non-academics (1.4 to 1) of any of the countries we looked at in our report (Australia, the UK, the US, and Canada), and of any university system we know of apart from Iceland’s.

Our universities have also joined in an international trend to employ ever more managerial staff, and ever fewer hands-on and technical staff. Executive staff have roughly doubled as a proportion of total non-academic staffing, while technicians have roughly halved.

We have two main concerns. The first is that universities are now no longer staffed mainly by academics. That makes them very different places to the cultural institutions they once were.

The second has to do with the bottom line. Universities do need administrators, but as budget crunches bite at universities across New Zealand, can our universities really afford to go on propping up some of the largest administrative bureaucracies anywhere in the world?

It’s a question that vice-chancellors across the country will have to think very hard about as they make the difficult decisions demanded by the ongoing budgetary crisis.

Stay in the loop: Subscribe to updates