An Introduction


September 29, 2019

Every year the UK’s Higher Education Statistics Authority (HESA) release a report on the number of people employed in British universities and the kinds of work that they are engaged in. Known as the “census”, every higher education institution in the United Kingdom is obliged to report this data to HESA on the 31st August each year. This data is then compiled and published as a report and a series of charts and tables on the HESA website a few months later.

The 2017/18 HESA “census” revealed that British universities employ the equivalent of 430,000 full time staff. Of these 210,000 are engaged in straightforwardly “academic” labour, that is to say teaching and the production of research, the other 220,000 are described as undertaking “non academic” labour.1 Most people outside of higher education, including graduates, probably have ideas - with varying degrees of accuracy - of what academic labour in the various disciplines that comprise the university entails. Likewise, successful organising and campaigning by badly paid, horrifically treated, often outsourced and casualised workers engaged in straightforwardly socially reproductive work, such as catering and cleaning; has raised the profile of the situation of some of the lowest paid and most marginalised workers on British campuses.

”non-academic” work

These workers, however, are just the tip of the iceberg. Much less attention has been paid to the bulk of workers engaged in “non-academic” work who are classified by their institutions and government bodies like HESA as engaged in “administrative, technical and managerial work.” In 2017/18, HESA counted 106,000 “non-academic” workers as engaged in “senior managerial, professional, associate professional and technical” work, and an additional 71,000 people as engaged in “secretarial and clerical work,’‘ with the remaining 40,000 or so non-academic staff employed in grounds and maintenance, catering and cleaning roles.

The indication is that roughly eighty percent of those engaged in “non-academic” labour in British universities are employed in predominantly office based roles. Yet, despite being around 180,000 strong (and doubtless much larger when workers indirectly employed through temping agencies like Unitemps and Reed are factored in) this is an overwhelmingly silent army.

For slightly over four years I worked at a large, self-proclaimed “research intensive” university in a variety of administrative roles: initially as temp undertaking clerical and routine administrative work; then directly employed in couple of mid-grade “Academic Related” positions, held during the last two years I worked there. Academic Related staff hold academic contracts but are workers engaged in purely administrative labour. As such, they undertake roles which the university’s grading framework deems to require knowledge, skills and experience equivalent to that of an academic worker. In what follows, I shall draw upon this experience, partly to increase awareness of what university administration is and what administrators do, but also to sketch out a schema for understanding the situation and political potential of administrative labour in contemporary British higher education and explore the role it plays in contemporary capitalism.

There is a recurring self-deprecating joke amongst those engaged in such labour that “nobody dreams of [being a university administrator] in school.” This is true, it tends to be something that people fall into. My route into the field was that I arrived back in my hometown at the tail end of the last recession having been laid off from a job in my university city, found no jobs available in my previous field and needed work that would take someone with my academic background and level of experience. This trajectory into working at the university was normal. Whilst there were some older staff members who had been there for decades, the majority of the university’s workforce comprised a blend of refugees from other parts of the public and third sectors and former graduate students who, having decided against continuing to pursue careers grounded in academic labour, ended up working in non-academic jobs at the university. Almost without exception, working in university administration was nobody’s first choice of career.

Nevertheless it is a form of labour that an increasing number of people are engaged in. At the institution I worked for, the 2001 HESA census counted four hundred members of staff employed on the kind of “Academic Related”-contract I held during the last two years I worked there. In 2018 when I left, I was one of 1,600 people employed on such contracts. That is to say, in a role which the university’s grading framework deemed to require knowledge, skills and experience equivalent to that of an academic worker. This represents a 300 percent increase in less than twenty years, indicaticating a major underlying shift. During the same time period the university’s real terms income doubled and the number of students increased by around ten thousand, yet the number of academic staff increased far more slowly, and the number of “Support Staff” (those engaged in clerical and secretarial work as well as those engaged in roles such as cleaners and catering assistants) barely increased at all. I shall now explore the political economy of this shift and how it has called into being new categories of workers.

The growth of universities

Regardless of the precise contours of their job role, university workers whether they are engaged in academic, administrative, or any other kind of labour play a critical role in maintaining and reproducing contemporary capitalism. As the production of coal and steel were to earlier capitalist eras, higher education is one of the foundational industries of the knowledge economy. The commodity they produce and transmit is knowledge and the ability to comprehend, manipulate and utilise it. This can be in the form of raw primary research, or it can take the form of applied innovation and the hundreds of thousands of students who graduate each year ready to sell their labour power to capitalists, voluntary organisations and the state alike.

Like all social phenomena, this must be understood as a dynamic process in which different social forces are in contest with one and other. Given the key role that knowledge and the ability to understand and manipulate it plays in the contemporary economy students entering higher education are seeking to acquire skills, whether specific or generic, which differentiate them from those who have not undertaken higher education. Through undertaking higher education they hope to make themselves better able to secure a well remunerated high status job in a labour market where technological change has polarised employment between low waged, casualised jobs, and higher waged, more secure jobs which require credentials and access to networks and the markers of “high status” forms of social and cultural capital.2 These processes create a self-reinforcing dynamic as the increase in the number of people attending university enables buyers of labour power to demand higher and more specialised forms of qualification so demand from those seeking to enter the labour market for higher education increases.

As well as fulfilling the needs of buyers of labour power, an understanding of the importance of both pure and applied research to the functioning of knowledge capitalism has led the government, at a time when it is hacking at other parts of the social infrastructure, to maintain and even increase the amount of money that it channels into higher education institutions. Key public policy documents such as the Industrial Strategy hinge on increased funding for research and commercialising research, placing commitments to “protect and enhance the UK’s research base” by more than doubling state spending on primary research at the fore of their approach. At regional and local levels the same approach is also in play. The West Yorkshire Combined Authority, for example, lists the universities of Huddersfield and Bradford, alongside the clusters of higher education institutions in York and Leeds as major regional strategic assets, while the comparable body covering Cambridgeshire states that establishing a new university in Peterborough (its largest urban centre) is a key objective.3 In each case, these local government bodies see the multiplier effects generated by the knowledge produced, transmitted and diffused by universities as key to their region’s ongoing development.

In cities like the one I call home, traditional industries have disappeared over the last fifty years, austerity since 2010 has atrophied the public and voluntary sectors, and ongoing technological change has polarised the rest of the labour market between a few high paid professional service type fields, requiring specialist entry qualifications, and low paid, increasingly casualised, service jobs. This has made universities (of which there are nine within thirty miles of where I live) increasingly important employers because in contrast to many other employing organisations they demand workers with a wide range of skills and qualifications. For moderately redistributive reasons, this growth in higher education has not been concentrated in the comparatively wealthier south east. Rather, it has taken place in urban centres of all sizes across the country. It also means that after social service and retail work, in many parts of the UK higher education is one of the largest buyers of labour power.

The neo-liberal state in servicing the capitalists it serves has also sought to find new ways to control, regulate and manage universities’ output. In every country of the global north - with the partial exception of the USA - it remains however, almost entirely state funded. On an ideological level this presents a challenge for the neo-liberal state given its deep political and operational commitment to the creation and intensification of market economics. State funding for university research and teaching is of vital importance to the future reproduction of the capitalist system. As mainstream economists such as Mariana Mazzucato have demonstrated, the private sector is unwilling to invest in the research, development and training required to stave of systemic sclerosis and maintain profitability.4

As New Labourite John McTernan admitted when a guest on Novara Media’s “Tysky Sour”, this state support for higher education amounts to “a major industrial strategy.”5 In a context where the government claims that market forces are sovereign, avoiding ideological cognitive dissonance requires a bait and switch approach on the part of the state. The solution in the UK has been to make all funding for higher education institutions competitive. Starting with the first Research Assessment Exercise in 1986, government higher education policy over a period of thirty years pivoted entirely away from funding universities through block grants based upon need, towards a system where all university funding is competitive. The situation since 2016 when student number controls were scrapped and all funding for teaching became dependent upon tuition fees is that every single one of the tens of billions of pounds the government pays universities each year has to be competed for.6

Anybody who’s travelled by train in the last half decade, visited the cinema, used social media, or watched Youtube at certain times of year, can attest that universities fight ferociously to attract fee paying students from both the UK and overseas. They also compete to scoop up research funding through the Research Excellence Framework (REF) audit exercise and the process of securing grants from the research councils comprising UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). Even the meagre funding that goes into widening participation initiatives ostensibly aimed at increasing “social mobility” has to be bid for every few years by consortia of universities in competitions organised by the Office for Students.

Intensification of work

This constant scramble to secure money is what has driven the growth of people employed in mid-to-senior grade, administrative positions in British universities. The competitive pressures in the higher education system, fostered by the neo-liberal state, create the perfect conditions for an arms race. As one institution hires more marketers and recruitment officers to scour the world and tempt students to study with them, so must all the others. Once students are enrolled, the importance that newspaper league tables place on student satisfaction and post graduation employment outcomes, mean further cadre of specialist workers are required to facilitate internships, years abroad, and troubleshoot any issues that could bring down the National Student Survey figures. Meanwhile, on the research side of the operation, battalions of grant writers, partnership officers, experts in gaining media coverage and collating, refining and gaming universities’ submissions to the REF all strain at squeezing their institution a slight competitive advantage.

To give an example of this in practice, twenty years ago at the university where I worked, there was a single member of staff responsible for overseeing the submission of research grant applications. Today, in the humanities focused faculty where I was based alone, there is a senior research bid manager, two grant writers, two assistants to the grant writers and a finance administration manager, who also has a part-time assistant. In the same building where they’re located, two floors below them, sits the student recruitment team. This comprises a senior marketing manager, three junior marketing managers and six assistants to the marketing managers. There are also an additional four members of staff who manage social media, edit the website and produce video content. Whether focused on securing the university money through research grants or tuition fees, these staff members provide localised support complementing large central teams with dozens of members, making them small cogs in a sprawling machine.

This is far from a standalone phenomenon unique to higher education. As funding and the conditions attached to funding have got tighter so there has been a proliferation of similar roles in grant writing and impact monitoring across the third sector. It is especially apparent in areas like heritage and the arts, which are predominantly state funded, but kept at “arm’s length” by the Arts Council and National Lottery distributors, in a similar way to how universities are funded through the Student Loans Company and UKRI grants.

The logic is always the same, contemporary capitalism cannot function without the intangible knowledge, innovation and creativity that these sites of production enable, nor can it repair and reproduce itself without the ties of learning, network formation and care they facilitate. It is, however, ideologically impossible for the capitalists whose profits depend upon this socially produced wealth, and the state that enables its extraction, to admit this. So they distance themselves ever more from the processes that allow these things to be sustained and reproduced in capitalist society, and in the process have created conditions necessitating the emergence of shoals of specialist jobs that did not previously exist. Jobs navigating and manipulating the caprices and contradictions of the neo-liberal state’s backhand support for the kinds of creativity, learning and self-fashioning that markets cannot support, but which knowledge era networked capitalism utterly depends upon.

Understanding administrative labour

In the English speaking world the growth of administrative labour in higher education has encouraged established trade publications like Times Higher Education and The Chronicle to focus upon matters impacting administrative workers as well as those engaged in academic labour. Likewise, a new raft of blogs - the most prominent in the UK being WonkHE - clearly see mid- to high-grade administrative workers as their primary audience. In this way a new professional identity is emerging and being articulated. However, there is strikingly little, whether in trade publications or more specialist literature, about the reasons why these roles are emerging or the actual lived experience of those undertaking them. Indeed instead of analysis, most of the commentary surrounding the creation and expansion of these roles has come in the form of reactionary jeremiads from a certain kind of older, always white, almost always male, senior academic - like Benjamin Ginsberg in the USA or Stefan Colini and Laurie Taylor in Britain.

Laurie Taylor - a Times Higher Education columnist - was invited to give a keynote speech at the Association of University Administrators annual conference and told the assembled audience that “… no matter how effective each member of the audience might be at their respective task, their work would always be regarded by the typical academic as little more than pen-pushing.”7 Such pernicious rhetoric about how the rise of administrative labour is supposedly undermining centuries old ideals of the university and academic freedom, unfortunately cascades down to and resonantes with younger scholars often in a casualised and proletarianised situation compared to that enjoyed by Taylor’s generation. Last year, The Guardian published an anonymous article by a precariously employed early career academic complaining that “…we need to start asking serious questions about why academics are subject to so much more scrutiny and surveillance than their administrative peers”, apparently for the sole reason that they perceived an acquaintance of theirs holding a mid-level administrative position to be subject to less oversight than them.8 I can assure the anonymous correspondent, based upon my own experience, that, that is certainly not the case. However, such views and assumptions about status being rife amongst those engaged in academic labour vividly frames some of challenges faced by those undertaking administrative labour.

The work of David Graeber on “the phenomenon of bullshit jobs” is more interesting in this regard.9 Graeber at least attempts to situate the development of administrative labour in higher education within overarching shifts in society. He is also insightful and sympathetic as to the effects that high pressure work with limited, or no clearly socially useful outcome can have upon the mental and physical health and wellbeing of people who undertake it. Where his work falls down however, is that whilst it is neither possible or desirable to argue that most university administrative jobs would be unnecessary under an ideal system, under current conditions they are both logical and a necessity. Even Benjamin Ginsberg in his Rise of the Administrative University grumpily agrees that “…the general domain of fundraising… administrators have proven themselves extraordinary adept” and in capitalist society where every scrap of university funding has to be fought for, so that research and teaching can be undertaken, this is surely utterly essential?10

In a recent anonymous piece for Vice it is indicated that there are people engaged in administrative labour in universities who essentially have nothing to do. However, in my experience this is very far from typical.11 Far more usual is the administrative worker who is overloaded with tasks to complete, projects to oversee and processes to complete, frequently with little or no support to manage their workload, and left feeling compelled to work unpaid overtime at evenings and weekends.

In planning this piece I reached out to friends of mine who have worked, or continue to work in administrative roles in higher education. Leaving aside individual experiences of overwork, competing demands, poor management and often challenging relationships with those engaged in academic labour, at a macro level a lot of the structural challenges university administrators experience at work relate to the frequently reactive way in which roles are designed and created. My experience, and the experience of those I spoke to, often hinged upon the fact that the objectives we were supposed to be working towards were in response to a particular directive issued by a regulator or a funding body.

The expansion of impact reporting as part of the REF, something which my final role at the university was focused on responding to, is a case in point. I and my counterparts working elsewhere in the university found that we had been hired into jobs where there was little understanding amongst the academic workers we were supposed to be collaborating with to deliver projects as to how we could usefully work together, nor was there any demand on the part of these academic workers, or others in the academic units where we were situated, to use the knowledge and skills that we brought with us.

In many ways these challenges stemmed from the deeply conservative and rigidly hierarchical character of the institution, something which served as a vivid reminder of the ideological role universities play in reproducing the dominant values and codes of the societies within which they are situated. As one of the friends I spoke to put it, she felt when working at the university that institutional structures and deeply rooted assumptions amongst those she worked with “[gave her] the feeling of inhabiting the archetypical female secretary [role]”. It is obvious that such things require interrogation so as to build understanding of how shifts in higher education policy and funding are leading to the creation of new forms of work, how such forms of labour are composed, and the situation and outlook of those undertaking it.

Towards an inquiry

In writing this piece I have attempted to start this process by shining a light upon the largely overlooked, or misleadingly disregarded and disparaged growth of administrative labour in UK higher education. My hope is that this schema will be useful for others who have worked, or continue to work in such situations to think through their position, critique it and think about how they can organise themselves and other workers to challenge their place within their institutions and prevailing system of economic relations. I shall reflect and write further on these questions and some of the things discussed in this article in the near future, and I hope that you will join me in doing so, to better understand the situation and potential of “non-academic” labour in higher education and that of workers in analogous contexts.



  1. HESA 

  2. Savage, Mike, Social Class in the 21st Century, (London, 2015), pp. 221-257 

  3. Leeds City Region Strategic Economic Plan 2016-2036 (Leeds, 2016); pp. 26-28,
    https://cambridgeshirepeterborough-ca.gov.uk/about-us/programmes/skills/university-of-peterborough/ 

  4. Mazzucatto, Marianna, The Entrepreneurial State Debunking Public vs. Private Sector Myths, (London, 2018) 

  5. Is Centrism Dead, Tyskie Sour 

  6. The total lifting of student number controls in 2016 was the culmination of a series of reforms to higher education funding which began in 2010 with the Tory-LibDem Coalition Government’s decision to raise home and EU undergraduate tuition fees from £3,300 per year to £9,000 per year. This change abolished grant funding for most undergraduate degrees meaning that they are instead funded entirely by “loans” which individual students are expected to take out and pay back. The near abolition of grant funding for teaching in English universities, and abolition of student number controls is the culmination of a process which began in 1998, when the Blair government first introduced fees (initially of £1,000 per year) for undergraduate education in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. 

  7. Laurie Taylor on Academics v Administrators, Times Higher 

  8. I’m an academic and I feel underpaid and over monitored, The Guardian 

  9. Graeber, David, Bullshit Jobs: A Theory, (London, 2018), pp. 1-26, pp. 101-143, pp. 262-265 

  10. Ginsberg, Benjamin, The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters, (Oxford, 2011), p. 42 

  11. Bullshit Job Diary, Vice 


author

Thomas Litterick

is the pseudonym of a writer, content creator and project manager who sometimes still works in the university sector.