When the bloat began

Dr James Kierstead
Insights Newsletter
1 March, 2024

Last year, the Initiative released a report on administrative bloat at New Zealand universities. It showed that the majority of staff at New Zealand universities are non-academics, and that this has been the case for quite some time. 

But for how long? Our report relied on figures available on the Ministry of Education website that only went back to 2012. 

Luckily, Statistics New Zealand’s series of official yearbooks go back further, allowing us to pinpoint the year that non-academics first became more numerous than academics. 

That year was 1991. Surprisingly, though, there was no huge rise in non-academic numbers that year. Instead, there was a steep fall in the number of academics – part-time academics in particular. 

This seems to tell against one theory about this country’s unusually bloated university bureaucracies: that universities added more non-academics as a result of the market-oriented reforms of the 1980s. 

But what might explain the sudden drop in part-time academics? 

It wasn’t just a matter of part-time academics being relabelled as full-time, since part-time academic numbers went down by 2198 and full-timers only increased by 170. 

Maybe universities were spooked by the government’s announcement that it would be reducing tuition subsidies, leading them to look for savings by offloading part-timers. That might explain why part-time academic numbers fell, but not why part-time non-academics decreased only slightly, and full-timers saw their numbers grow.  

A final possibility is that part-time academics became a riskier proposition, perhaps because universities were now forced to hire part-timers on a full-time basis after they had served a certain number of years. That may have led universities to shift some part-timers to full-time contracts but to shed the remainder.  

The official yearbooks also allowed us to look at something else that we had touched on in our report: the various types of non-academics (technicians, managers, etc.) that work at our universities, and how this has changed over time. 

Before the mid-90s, this was remarkably stable, with librarians, administrative, and grounds staff (say) consistently making up roughly the same proportions of total staff.   

Since then, things have been more dynamic, with our universities increasingly outsourcing hands-on staff like technicians while taking on more and more white-collar employees.  

What exactly has caused those changes will have to remain, for now, a topic for future research – by us or by others. 

Dr James Kierstead and Dr Michael Johnston's report, When the Bloat Began: Non-Academic Staffing at New Zealand Universities over the Long Run, 1961-1997, was published on 28 February. 

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