Ministers who can do; cannot preach

Posted on July 9, 2007  /  1 Comments

The universities are back in to utter chaos. Nothing to worry. Looks like we have a competent minister of Higher Education who knows university administration as the back of his hand. Why he does not put his theories into practice is the million dollar question.

Was it George Bernard Shaw who said, those who can do; cannot teach?


Some relevant thoughts on university administration

Prof. Wiswa WARNAPALA, Minister of Higher Education

UNIVERSITY ADMINSTRATION: When discussing certain aspects of University adminstration in Sri Lanka, I would like to distinguish it from Public Adminstration. Firstly, I would like to ask the question whether we can make use of the concept expounded by Max Weber to study administrative structures in the Universities.

The term ‘University bureaucracy’ is used, but the University bureaucracy is very much different from the public bureaucracy. The characteristics of the modern bureaucracy, expounded by Max Weber, are represented within the University bureaucracy.

They include such things as rules and regulations, official duties, the authority to give commands, qualifications, the principle of hierarchy, hierarchical subordination, modern office based on written rules and jurisdictional competency.

In a bureaucratic organisation, the institutions are governed by competency. The management of the office is based on rules and written documents, and the position of the official is such that he is engaged in a vacation.

In other words, office-holding is a vacation. All these features of the Weberian model of bureaucracy are represented within the university bureaucracy but it is still different from the public bureaucracy.

We know that qualifications and training are required for a person to get into a vacation. In that sense, University Adminstration could be treated as a special kind of vocation.

The number of persons employed in University adminstration has multiplied in the recent years, especially in the last forty five years, and it, therefore, sufficiently justifies a survey of the mature and conditions of their occupation.

This occupation appears attractive to young graduates who are in search of a career. University adminstration, according to many a expert from Britain, offers the prospect of a satisfying career to young graduates.

University administrator, like a public official, enjoys distinct social esteem and social respectability. This is primarily because of the fact that the official is appointed by a superior authority, and the other fact is that the university, as you know, is a very large organisation.

Today, the modern world is dominated by organisations. The University, for instance, contains all the features of a large bureaucratic organisation. It, in effect, means that University office work needs special skills; it means that University adminstration is a special career. It is some kind of an academic civil service.

Since 1942, much has been published about Universities in Sri Lanka, but little has appeared about their administrative staff. Several studies are there on the Universities but they referred briefly to their administrative offices.

There are certain principles on which the administrative service of a University should be organised, and it was known that the expansion of Universities and various political pressures from outside had increased the administrative burden of the Vice Chancellors.

It was this characteristic which demanded a new organisation to undertake the adminstration of the Universities.

In the case of Britain, the Fran Frank Report on Oxford recommended the enhancing of the status and responsibilities of the Registrar and his control over administrative staff. This Report on Oxford argued for a recognised and receptacle career structure in the areas of University administration.

It was mentioned that Vice Chancellors need to be relieved of their numerous responsibilities and allow them to undertake the task of formulating policy. The control over the entire administration was accorded to the Registrar.

Each University is a corporate body, established by an Act of Parliament or under a single Act of Parliament, and University administration is conducted under statutes made in accordance with such legislative instruments.

Each University controls its finances, subject to directions from the Ministry of Higher Education and the University Grants Commission.

In the case of Sri Lanka, the University of Ceylon Ordinance, No. 20 of 1942 laid the foundation for University administration, and the period 1921 to 1942, University administration was conducted on the basis of departmental rules.

In fact, the University College functioned as a Government Department, and this interfered with the expansion of the concept of a modern University.

The University administered by a Government Department was part of the colonial model, and it had both advantages and disadvantages. Sir Ivor Jennings was always critical of this and often complained that the Executive Committee on Education in Donoughmore set-up interfered in the administration of the University. There are many references to this in his autobiography titled “The Road to Peradeniya.”

The University administration is a diarchy – an administration by two independent authorities. One important segment is the academic body, usually called the Senate, which enjoys supremacy over academic matters.

Any such supremacy is limited by the powers over finances exercised by the Council which consists of both academics and lay members. Nearly 30 to 50 per cent of its members are drawn from the senate or other bodies consisting of academics employed by the University.

The Senates is mainly concerned with matters relating to teaching, examinations and research. The modern University exists for these purposes, and such activities need money.

The Council controls the money but cannot spend without the advice of the Senate. This is confined to certain activities.

Each University, as an independent body, decides what administrative staff it needs, and what their duties and conditions of employment are to be.

In this regard, the University Grants Commission can intervene and prepare a set of guidelines. With establishment of the university Grants Commission, there came to be established a system of centralized control.

Such matters come within the purview of the Council. Each university has developed its own administrative organisation; most Universities follow the same pattern. But the titles of administrative positions vary widely as do the responsibilities attached to them.

What I propose to emphasise before this audience is that men and women who find a career in administrative work follow common vocation but they are not members of an organised profession. University administrators cannot be called professionals as there is no specific entrance qualification.

Though a good University degree is expected, they enter the service via different routes with. Different levels of qualifications. Yet another fact is that there is no provision for in-service training.

It would be useful at this stage of discussion to look at the experience of Britain. The two main Universities, Oxford and Cambridge, from the middle ages onwards, were self-governing communities of resident masters.

From the 16th century onwards, those two universities had a small number of administrative posts, and they were filled by the appointment of College fellows.

It was towards the end of the 19th century that both Oxford and Cambridge appointed Registrars who were Teaching Fellows and they devoted their full-time to administrative work.

With the creation of the University of London, there occurred a number of changes in the area of administration, and the University had in many respects the status of a government department.

The University of London Act of 1900 brought in a number of changes, and a Principal was at the Head of the institution. He was a full-time officer. It was this innovation which influenced the University College (1921), and the same concept was exported to all the Universities in the colonies.

The University of London, from 1900 to 1929, appointed Principals who were not only administrators of experience but also distinguished academics. It was our experience as well from 1921 to 1942.

With the expansion of the Universities system in the 19th century, there developed in Britain a network of provincial Universities and they owed much to the growth of industry, commerce and local authorities.

They, as innovative institutions, developed their own administrative organisations and ran the show with a predominantly a lay Council. Under this system, there was full time Registrar who was responsible for the administration of the university and the Senate was responsible for the academic affairs. Some Registrars came from the academic staff.

The same thing was tried in Sri Lanka in the seventies and it was a total failure. As Universities expanded, the number of University staff and their functions increased. The famous Robbins Report of 1963 had an effect on the process of change. People from different services and professions began to enter the university service, and they belonged to various specialties.

Universities began to employ accountants. In other words, teaching fellows gradually gave way to a variety of full-time officers. It was in this way that University administration was converted into a career.

With this change, the administrative Staff came to be accepted as colleagues of the academic staff, and this relationship was necessary for efficient administration. In other words, the administrator was not treated as a potential bureaucrat.

At one stage, the academic staff showed apprehension about the influence of the administrative staff, and they wanted them not encroach on academic control. With a view to attracting good men and women into University administration, many Universities, both here and abroad, gave equal status to the administrative staff. It was through such measures that mutual trust and understanding was built.

What are the main functions of the university administrative staff? There are common functions to any university, big or small. They are expected to serve the governing bodies and committees, which transact the business of the University; arranging of admissions and examinations, keeping of records of students, graduates, teachers and the like, making payments, keeping accounts and preparing estimates and providing buildings and equipments were the other subjects.

On the basis of this distribution of subjects, various classes of officers came on the scene, and the University administrative bureaucracy expanded. In this set-up, the Vice Chancellor was not regarded as the chief academic and administrative officer; he combined both academic and administrative functions.

His role was that of a chief formulator of policy, and in the formulation of policy he sought the assistance of the Senate and the Council. There are other bodies which assisted, and his clout with the government in power was equally valid and powerful. Therefore, his control over administration was inevitable.

The Vice Chancellor presides over the Senate and is a member of the Council whereas the Registrar or Bursar is not a member, though the Registrar has a special role in the council as its record keeper.

We are primarily concerned with the role of the Registrar and his staff as they, in my view, constitute the administrative arm of the University. We know that there is an office and administrative structure built around the variety of functions at a University, and it is around this office structure that an ‘academic civil service’ has been created.

One has to keep in mind that the supporting clerical staff which in the case of Sri Lanka, has been sub-divided into different grades, contribute a great deal to accomplish the task of administration in the universities.

They need special skills, and in the performance of their duties they may be involved in executive decisions with limited discretion. In other words, clerical staff, which provides an effective supporting service in the Universities, is organized to provide a common service to all sections of the administration.

In the case of Sri Lanka, this group of officials, with a plethora of minor grades, has expanded to such an extent that their trade unionism has become the main source of de-stabilisation of the Universities; they could easily paralyse the universities.

In the last three years, this group of non-academics – who are very much unionized – went on strike for 93 days and the universities had to spend nearly 254 million to pay their salaries for the days on which they were on strike.

It is not easy to transfer them to other Universities. Some executive posts are filled by promotion from the clerical grades; some of them succeed in becoming Assistant Registrars.

It would be necessary to define the scope of the subjects of University administration. It is accepted that the success of a higher education institution depends on the ability to plan, organise and manage its affairs, and its ability to attract human and financial resources and use them effectively to realise the objectives of teaching, research and service to the community.

Therefore, one has to look at the nature of the administrative work and its increase in recent years. It is in this light that one has to examine the role of the Registrar – it is a career in University office work.

Both Needham and Gunawardena Reports on the University of Ceylon have not given much consideration to the role of the Registrar. The Universities in Britain always appoint a graduate, who is selecting a career, as a Registrar, who has to be the ‘real master of affairs’.

The person appointed is one who likes a University atmosphere and one who had not obtained a University teaching position. No professional qualification is required for the job.

In the Sri Lankan case, the choice is different as the person is looking for a job. It would be useful to look at the nature of administrative work in the Universities; University work is primarily and essentially committee work, and the University Committees are academic in membership.

Academic, as you know well, believe that the initiative in University policy should remain within their domain. The tradition of administration by scholars began to change after 1945 and a beginning was made to appoint graduates seeking a full-time career in university administration.

They need to be men who could collaborate with academics and students – their primary clientele.

The rank of the Registrar is similar to that of Professor. His role is very unique because he is expected to deal with educated people – this is of fundamental importance.

There are numerous social advantages in a University which could be used to socialise the Registrars into the administrative leadership. Social advantages include such things as the Senior Common Room, the Library and the Faculty Club.

Such social gatherings, apart from their role in promoting social understanding, are centres of intellectual activity and they offer opportunities for the young graduate in the administration to interact with the academics.

We need to remember that University jobs are unattractive to men with ambitions for wealth and power.

No University teacher could become a billionaire through research and teaching. Such feats are very rare. In the university administration, the Registrar is the key official who enjoys responsibility without power.

He is the servant of a body corporate and it is his duty to pose questions to his masters; it is his duty to supply information but unlike a member of a Committee, he cannot argue his case or have an objection recorded.

There was no quality academic staff in these universities and such factors and issues, in the end, interfered with the process of good management.

We need to pay more attention to both office organisation and management. Sri Lanka Universities expanded in the last 25 years, and there are nearly 10,000 persons employed in the administration of the universities.

Administrative staff is now a separate organisation. The special knowledge and skills needed by university office staff has to be gained through experience and in-service training.

It is here that I recommend the establishment of a formal Conference of Registrars and Bursars, and such a meeting needs to be held quarterly or bi-annually to examine the issues and exchange views on University administration.

It is my view that through this formal organisation, consisting of Registrars and Bursars, that an efficient system of management could be organised in the Universities; it would eventually evolve into a professional system of management and we know that poor governance is always associated with cumbersome administrative rules and bureaucratic procedures. Higher Education is an integral part of modern society and there is an increasing need to strengthen its management.

New approach to University governance and management suggest a new cadre of managers. It means that Universities need a set -of- full-time administrators but it does not mean that academics would cease to play a key role in the governance and management of the universities.


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