Non-Academic staff members are professional employees who contribute very significantly to the success of Higher Educational Institutions. They bring to the Higher Educational Institutions an important repertoire of professional skills, possess a wealth of institutional knowledge, provide essential resources, and work alongside of faculty and Administration in realizing the Institution’s mission. Many have served through several administrations and numerous leadership changes at the departmental level. This long-term experience gives them invaluable expertise and lends consistency to the daily operations of the institution.
The contribution of non-academic staff highly influences the student experience at Higher Educational Institutions. While faculty supports students academically and in research, the staff makes equally important contributions toward the success of students through many critical support and operational services.
There is evidence to show that the number of non-academic administrative and professional employees at established Higher Educational Institutions in India has more than doubled in the last 25 years, vastly outpacing the growth in the number of students or faculty. The disproportionate increase in the number of staffers who neither teach nor conduct research has continued unabated in years that are more recent.
Those commenting on higher education often ask whether the proportion of administrative and support staff is higher than it should be, with the unspoken assumption that a percentage less than hundred is ideal. This is a good starting point; since without administrative and other support functions Higher Educational Institutions are always at some risk that they cannot adequately provide student services and high value research.
There is just an overwhelming amount of money per student that is being spent on administration. This raises a question of priorities.
Institutions have added these administrators and professional employees even as they have substantially shifted classroom-teaching duties from full-time faculty to less expensive part-time adjunct faculty and teaching assistants. Institutions have increased their hiring of part-time faculty to try to cut costs.
Institutions can undertake a critical examination of their costs to tell exactly how much the rise in administrators and professional employees has contributed to the increase in the cost of tuition and fees, which has also almost quadrupled in the last 20-years. This is a higher price rise than for any other sector of the economy in that period, including healthcare. The unrelenting addition of administrators and professional staff has driven this steep increase.
The continued hiring of non-academic employees belies the very idea that institutions are doing everything they can to improve efficiency and hold down costs.
While the rest of the economy has been shrinking overhead, higher education has been investing heavily in more overhead. Staffing per student is a valid way to judge efficiency improvements or declines. The ratio of non-academic employees to faculty has also doubled. There are now two non-academic employees at public and two and a half at private institutions and colleges for every one full-time, tenure-track member of the faculty. In no other industry would overhead costs be allowed to grow at this rate; executives would lose their jobs. The doubling of administrative and professional staff does not seem to have improved the performance of Higher Educational Institutions.
In any long-term plan for Higher Educational Institutions, among other goals, the institution should learn to value non-academic staff as crucial for the central missions of the institution. This requires that the non-academic staff be supported as a crucial human resource for the institution. Careful attention needs to be paid to the creation and maintenance of a healthy workplace. Career development should be fostered through advancement opportunities. Internal mobility should be actively encouraged.
Valuing non-academic staff also requires the rational, transparent distribution of staff across units, and a careful consideration of their duties. Regular review of staff roles and responsibilities should be implemented.
As the institution advances, it must take care to maintain necessary staff levels and skill requirements. An institution should however never lose sight of the primacy of its purpose, functions of teaching and research, and not let the flab of Non-Academic Staff grow. The institution cannot be unmindful of the non-academic responsibilities, which it entrusts upon the academic-staff.
The financial stress on the institutions of higher education caused by COVID-19 pandemic has led to focus on productivity and cost-cutting, which in certain cases has led to denial of tenures to faculty and non-renewal of teaching contracts. At a so-called premier b-school in Gurgaon, the annual workloads for the teaching faculty have been increased by over thirty percent without any increase in their compensation. Of course, academics are the front line staff who provide the teaching and research functions that represent the institution’s core business. Unfortunately, there seems to have been no talk of pruning the non-academic staff by any percentage.
It is astounding to hear a very senior professor from the institution saying that non-academic administrators were a cancer in their academic system. It is more alarming to notice that many others are greeting such a statement with mutters of approval. It seems probable that eventually, there would be an open or covert warfare between academics and non-academics at this institution where legacy systems have sustained the covert bossing by the non-academics over the academics.
First published 07 April 2021
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