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Experts: Elite administration is about power, and the fear of failure

Administration — The administrative elite has grown. Both at the University of Copenhagen, and among its competitors. Three experts doubt that this has led to a better university

The number of administrative specialists has tripled in the past 20 years at the University of Copenhagen while the number of secretaries has been almost halved.

But while management at the University of Copenhagen explains the trend by pointing to an increased complexity in administrative tasks, several experts and observers say that the root cause is a culture of control and fear of failure.

»There has been a dramatic build-up of power and skills around top management and the university’s central administration relative to previous years. Management structures have changed,« says one of the country’s most experienced experts in public management, emeritus professor Jørgen Grønnegård Christensen of the Department of Political Science at Aarhus University.

They carried out reforms, so to speak, that made room for people who enjoy power

Emeritus professor Jørgen Grønnegård Christensen

»They carried out reforms, so to speak, that made room for people who enjoy power,« he says.

Reforms in recent years including the change of the funding system has created an increased need for administrative specialists who can help write complex EU and funding applications and manage students and finances.

But according to Jørgen Grønnegård Christensen, the external changes in the university community are only part of the explanation. The other part of the explanation is an increase in top-down management and interference which is making universities more bureaucratic and inefficient:

“You also see it in many other countries. The previously informal procedures at the universities now take longer because of the internal centralization and control. Considerably more resources are spent on study programme administration today, and there are far more deadlines and work procedures than before,« says Jørgen Grønnegård Christensen.

READ ALSO: Elite administrators have taken over Danish universities

We have become scared of making mistakes

Anthropologist and author of the book Pseudoarbejde or ‘pseudo work’ Dennis Nørmark points out that the fear of failure means that administrative resources are being spent on unnecessary tasks.

»They claim that the administration of a public institution is more complicated today. But we also complicate things ourselves. We have become so afraid of making mistakes. They therefore use huge sums on hiring lawyers and financial managers who are good at arguing for their own indispensability in a modern institution,« says Dennis Nørmark.

He doubts whether the expensive senior consultants in the administration help make the public institutions better. And at the same time, he questions the logic of, on the one hand employing highly paid specialists in administration, while on the other hand firing secretaries to make savings on the administration budget.

We have judges, doctors and university professors who do the administrative work that secretaries did in the past.

Anthropologist Dennis Nørmark

»This is a trend we see everywhere in society. We have judges, doctors and university professors who do the administrative work that secretaries did in the past. Ostensibly to afford  lawyers, economists and communications staffhaving offices in the administration to ensure that the public institutions are run professionally and flawlessly. And to avoid negative publicity,« says Dennis Nørmark.

According to Dennis Nørmark there is no proof that a public institution such as the University of Copenhagen has become better from getting a more professional administration.

»There are a lot of lawyers and economists, telling themselves and each other that the work they do is really useful. The problem is that their logic and thinking is never challenged, because the people who hire them have the same educational background as they do, and think in the same way. You have to, of course, manage and administer things. But it does not make sense that those that have to do research need to spend half a day filling out a travel reimbursement form and are not allowed to buy their own pens,« he says.

Has consequences for academic level

Henning Jørgensen, labour market researcher from Aalborg University, sees the growing administrative elite as part of a New Public Management culture that has characterised universities in recent years.

New Public Management

NPM is the idea of running the state as if it was part of the liberal market economy. Many political reforms in Denmark since the 1980s have been shaped by the NPM approach, like for example the privatisation of state-owned monopoly companies and the – for universities – policy of placing research funding in foundations, which the universities then have to compete for.

When it comes to management and administration, NPM has resulted in an objectives and framework management policy, where relatively autonomous and highly paid managers implement objectives defined in contracts, and where the achievement of targets triggers government funding. The University of Copenhagen, for example, has a contract with the Ministry for Higher Education and Research. The trend has been that the politicians over time want to measure more and more things, and this has reduced the freedom in relation to NPM -the ideal.

»This trend has been very visible at the University of Copenhagen. It has become a more market liberal university, where benchmarks mean more to management than the prime purpose of universities, namely research and education. Work has become performance, and this means that it is no longer intellectuals that management teams want, but merely intellectual workers,« he says.

According to Henning Jørgensen, managers see themselves as important and indispensable business leaders.

»The universities have become competitors, and managers compare themselves to business leaders in the private sector. It is therefore also important for them to have many people around them checking and preparing communication strategies, so that they look good relative to the competition.«

Henning Jørgensen says that the cult of competition has consequences for the academic content, and that he is concerned about the new management style, which he calls ‘management by fear’:

»There is a self-imposed silence among staff at universities. You have to look good in the competition and you are afraid of being fired. There are therefore fewer and fewer people who dare to speak out in public about these conditions,,« says Henning Jørgensen.

Translated by Mike Young

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