Rather predictably, a Guardian article railing against pointless admin has stimulated a response from the university admin community. Unfortunately, the response kind of misses the point – academics are annoyed at POINTLESS ADMIN, not at administrators in general (though the two are not entirely unrelated).
Here’s the thing – there is both pointless and essential administration, and at the same time, there are both excellent and poor administrators. An attack on pointless admin is not an attack on good administrators. We all can recognise groups of excellent administrators without whom the place would fall apart. No-one is attacking them.
So what is pointless admin? There is so much of it I don’t know where to start. Perhaps the best example is the recording of academic outputs. My University insists I put them in PURE; Wellcome Trust insist I have an ORCID account; and BBSRC insist I use ResearchFish. You can accept the motivation for this whilst at the same time recognising that it is genuinely pointless replication of effort. Academics are angry not because this happens once or twice, but because it happens all the time and it is increasing in frequency.
So what makes a good administrator? Well, I have always said “A bad administrator reminds you to do something, a good administrator does it for you”. There are caveats, but it’s a good starting point. A quick guide for administrators might be something like this: “Is this a tick-box exercise? Can you tick the box? Then tick the box. Please. Thank you! Does it really need the academic’s input? Can they send bullet points and you do the rest? Let’s do that then! Otherwise are there any parts you can fill in? I’d love for you to fill them in! Is it possible to visit and not send yet another e-mail? That would be awesome. You can ask if a follow-up email would help and then send one afterwards. Is there a possibility that one system/form can be filled in and then the same information copied to other systems/forms? Can you do the copying? Awesome! And, as an aside, can we maybe have less systems/forms if they contain the same information? Amazing”.
The obvious response to all of this is “why should the admins have to do all of that? You arrogant ****! Do your own admin!”. This misses an unfortunate point – we are drowning. If academia was a near-death experience, then academics are 200 yards off shore, in a rip-tide, barely breathing with our arms in the air, waving for help. We need help. Our job is to teach, to publish papers and to win research grants, research grants with overheads, all of which go some way to sustaining the very institution we all work for. Every minute doing admin is a minute we are not doing the thing that keeps the lights on.
Please. Help us. Remove POINTLESS ADMIN. And be a good administrator, not a bad one.