NZ universities and non-academic staff - how many is too many?

Dr James Kierstead
NZ Herald
3 August, 2023

As a sometimes absent-minded academic, I’m often very grateful for non-academic staff.

Helping me set up my courses before the trimester begins. Fixing the latest IT snafu. Reminding me of an important meeting I should have been at 10 minutes ago.

There can, though, be too much of a good thing – even university administrators. This year it was revealed that Stanford, where I did my PhD, has more administrators than undergraduates. In fact, Stanford has so many administrators that you could give every undergraduate a personal butler and still have a couple thousand administrators left over.

My NZ Initiative colleague Michael Johnston and I decided to find out more about non-academic staffing at New Zealand universities. How many non-academics are there at our universities? What kinds of work do they do? And how have things changed over time?

The results are published in the report we released this week, Blessing or Bloat? Non-Academics at New Zealand Universities in Comparative Perspective.

We were surprised by what we found. For a start, New Zealand universities have, for at least the past decade, employed more non-academics than academics. To put it another way, the majority of staff at our universities has, for a long time, consisted not of lecturers and professors, but of managers and support staff.

If you find that surprising, it should be. It’s also pretty uncommon. In the set of English-speaking countries we looked at in the report, only Australia also had more non-academics than academics at its universities – and Australian universities still employed fewer non-academics per academic than their New Zealand counterparts.

In fact, New Zealand universities led the pack when it came to the percentage of total staff that were non-academics. At 59% in 2021, that proportion was higher than in Australia, the UK, and even the US. (Fancy private universities like Stanford are, apparently, an outlier when it comes to administrative numbers. The average percentage of non-academic staff in the US is an unspectacular 45%.)

At some New Zealand universities, the percentage of non-academics was even higher. At the University of Otago that percentage has hovered between 60% and 64% of total staff. According to figures from the Academic Quality Agency, 61% of Victoria University of Wellington staff were non-academics in 2022.

When did the number of non-academics get so high? That’s not clear. For the past decade or so the percentage of total university staff made up by non-academics has flatlined.

But big increases in non-academic staffing did take place from 2002 to 2012. And a couple of our universities have added non-academics substantially faster than academics in more recent times. Since 2009 professional staff numbers have increased at Otago by 18% and at Victoria by 31%, while academic staff numbers have grown by only 3% and 9% respectively.

The last couple decades have also seen big changes in the kinds of non-academics our universities employ. Between 2002 and 2021 the shares of non-academic staff made up by technicians and librarians both roughly halved, while student welfare and executive staff saw their shares approximately double.

This is part of a broader trend across the Anglosphere over the last two decades or so to take on more and more white-collar workers while at the same time out-sourcing blue-collar employees.

At Australian universities senior and middle management grew substantially, while other categories of non-academics grew much more modestly, or even declined. In the UK, categories that included PR and student support staff saw big increases; meanwhile, technicians (which included lab assistants and IT workers) decreased in number. At US research universities professional non-academic staffing expanded while non-professional staff numbers declined.

The number of non-academics per academic at New Zealand universities is, then, very high by international standards. The big surge in non-academic staffing probably took place in the first decade of this century. Since then, the kinds of non-academics employed by our universities also changed, with white-collar employees replacing blue-collar workers.

Why should any of this be a concern?

The first reason should be obvious. Otago, Victoria, Massey and AUT have all recently announced cuts as a result of severe budget shortfalls. Our universities spend more on academic than non-academic salaries, but at 45% of their total salary spend, expenditure on non-academic staffing represents a significant outlay.

The second worry concerns the rise of what the New Zealand sociologist Maureen Baker has called ‘the managerial university.’

This is a development that our research probably underplays. Because our focus was on non-academic staff, we didn’t include career academics in administrative roles (Provost, Associate Dean, and so on) in our count.

Our sense, though, is that such roles have proliferated in the modern New Zealand university, as they have at universities in other English-speaking countries. Put this together with the growth in executive professional staff, and you have quite an impressive managerial apparatus drawn almost exclusively from more credentialed, better-off sections of society.

This, in turn, should give us concerns about a third issue – the lack of viewpoint diversity at our universities, and the ongoing crisis to do with campus free speech.

In a poll for the Free Speech Union last year, over a third of Kiwi academics said they felt more constrained than free to discuss most of the topics surveyed. And in a separate study conducted by Heterodox New Zealand (an association of academics concerned about viewpoint diversity in our universities), about a third of undergraduates polled said they would feel uncomfortable discussing hot-button issues in the classroom.

It isn’t entirely clear how much high levels of non-academic staffing have contributed to this problem. But the issues academics and students say they feel hesitant to talk about tend to overlap with those handled by ‘Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion’ administrators. In the Free Speech Union’s survey, for example, half of the academics polled felt more constrained than free to discuss the Treaty of Waitangi, which also has a prominent place in most universities’ DEI policies.

This concern, like all the concerns raised in our report, will no doubt be further debated by academics, politicians, and members of the public. We would welcome this. One of our main aims in our report, in fact, was to stimulate more debate about the administration of our universities – and help give this debate a more solid empirical grounding.

Read here

Stay in the loop: Subscribe to updates