Let managers manage, and academics teach

Institutions need to rethink how academics’ time is best spent
At a conference recently, I was reminded of the close co-operative arrangement that underlies tertiary institutions. The academic and professional areas are the yin and yang; when they are in disharmony, institutions are managerially poorer.
It was also pointed out that the division between them was shrinking. That administrators who also happen to be academics have a fantastic working relationship with professionals who have senior portfolios – such as deputy vice-chancellors (corporate) – and as a general rule they cooperate to further the cause of their institutions.
Although this might be true at the highest levels, I am not so certain it applies in middle management. The recent Association for Tertiary Eduation Management and L H Martin Institute research report, Leading Professionals in Australian and New Zealand Tertiary Education, showed that the most important area of focus for professional senior managers is collaboration across the institution. Collaboration across faculties, disciplinary area and divisions is the lifeblood of tertiary education institutions.
Several articles this year have referred to the demarcation between academic and professional labour. In one (Onselen, 2012) it was even suggested that faculty managers be made more responsible for day-to-day administration in order to free academics to do what they do best: teaching and research. It is a powerful argument, and it is time to look at this issue more closely. Not so much for issues of demarcation, but out of sheer necessity.
Many universities worry about the retirement of senior academics who are in the baby boomer demographic, but they should also be concerned that in September last year, a DEEWR survey found that two in five academics under the age of 30 planned to leave the sector within five to ten years. One of the main reasons cited was their negative perception of management, and that bureaucratic work was taking them away from teaching and research.
So we have a situation where we are losing academics at the senior end and failing to retain junior staff to fill the gaps. For many regional intuitions, the retention and attraction of academic staff is one of the top two critical issues.
The solution to most professionals is obvious: let managers do what they are good at and let academics do the same. Give management more of the day-to-day running.
To move in this direction would present university administrations with a considerable challenge. Academic promotion is based on success in three areas: teaching, research and administration. To change the form of administrative promotion would mean a large shift in the way that promotion is handled by universities.
This is not to diminish the fundamental need for academic leadership in universities, which professionals have always understood. What I would argue is that there should be a change in the way it is arranged. In the end it comes down to one of the most important functions of a human resource department: workforce planning.
On August 2 as part of ATEM’s Celebrity Thinker breakfast program, former Australian of the Year Dr Fiona Wood will give us a wish list of what she needs from management and professional staff to enable her to do what she does best. As Australia’s foremost authority on the treatment of severe burns, Dr Wood undoubtedly achieves better results by being freed of administrative duties to do the work that has made her internationally renowned.
How do universities ensure that their top researchers continue to achieve strong results and that their top teachers stand in front of a classroom or camera? Tertiary management professionals understand completely that the function of institutions is research and education. Management needs to allow the best people to perform at the job they are good at.
Paul Abela is the executive director of the Association for Tertiary Education Management (ATEM).

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