This Indicator is not one of the seven component Indicators that contribute to the Overall Expenditure Ranking, although it is covered in the Operational Support Cost Indicator. It is addressed here because its increasing size and cost has been a lightning rod for campus frustration for many years; it is seen as emblematic of the bureaucratization that has undermined the academic effectiveness of many universities.
Central Administration, as addressed on this site, amalgamates two current CAUBO functions. External Relations (covering “fundraising, development, alumni, public relations and public information or external communications”) was separated from “Administration & General” in 2003-04. Several years later the surviving Administration & General title was changed to the better sounding but content-unchanged “Administration & Academic Support” (see CAUBO definitions HERE, page 20). This site re-joins those functions as Central Administration (or Central Admin).
Central Admin covers the top bureaucracy of the university – the offices of the president and vice-presidents, and functions such as external relations, financial services, human resources, the registrar, and alumni affairs.
Its rising cost has been a focus of frustration for years. Students view it as a driver of rising fees, faculty see Central Admin costs increasing while they are forced to handle cutbacks, and even the general public has voiced anger after seeing “Sunshine Lists” disclosing public sector salaries.
The frustration with the salaries of university presidents is understandable, but not the real issue – just, due to the Sunshine Lists, its most public face. These are demanding positions, and our universities must compete for top-calibre leadership if they are to succeed on the national and global stage. A $500,000+ salary is indeed a great deal of money, but not a particularly large drop in a $1.2 billion bucket (the average total expenditure across the Top 25).
The real problem is rooted in the continual staffing build-up within Central Admin – not just more vice-presidential positions, but more associate vice-presidents and assistant vice-presidents, and particular growth in largely-new positions such as chiefs of staff, senior and special advisors in a plethora of areas, legal counsels, and so on. Of course, each new position requires its own administrative support team. Numbers for more and more of these individuals are appearing in the sunshine lists.
9 A) CENTRAL ADMINISTRATION COST – EFFICIENCY RANKINGS9A
The Summary Rankings are derived from the detailed rankings in the first four of the tables below. Additional analyses are included but do not form part of the Summary Ranking.
These tables show the 2001 and latest spending levels, the latest expenditure, and the dollar impact of spending level variances (the amount by which the university is over-spending or under-spending, compared with past levels or current peer group levels).
As the function oversees the affairs of the entire university, the tables measure Central Admin cost from a variety of angles.
At most universities, the growth of Central Admin is the largest contributor to the major problem of super-inflated fixed costs – the “ticking time bomb” factor. A review of Central Admin’s CAUBO definition does not reveal many areas in which increasing enrollment (or research grant) levels should trigger parallel increases in central costs; a 20% increase in enrollment, for example, does not mean that the university needs a 20% larger senior leadership team, because that enrollment increase does not change their roles or significantly affect their workload. The impact of increasing enrollment is felt most in student-contact areas such as Instruction and Student Services.
However, the numbers show that Central Admin costs have been allowed to escalate at levels far beyond the expenditure increases in core-mission areas. The growth and order of magnitude numbers are shocking:
- In 2001 the average Top 25 university spent $44 million (in 2019 dollars) on Central Admin, but that had increased to almost $93 million by 2019 – an increase of 111%.
- At the U-15 universities outside of Québec the average cost has increased from $48 million to $118 million – up 146%.
- Across the “Top 3” (Toronto, UBC and Alberta) it has risen from $75 million to $220 million – up 193%.
Over that same time frame, expenditures on Instruction & Non-Sponsored Research across the Top 25 have increased by 83%, and expenditures on Sponsored Research by 85%.
Campus frustration is magnified by the perception that Central Admin often renders itself immune to the challenge it imposes on other sectors. Across the Top 25, it has received a larger budget increase than Instruction more than 61% of the time since 2001. While the average increase for Instruction has been 3.4%, the average for Central Admin has been 4.3% – well above the overall General Operating increase of 3.6%.
The main “pushback” explanations cited for the rapid growth are the increasing complexities of operating a university, and the advent of new governmental and legal requirements. However, these factors do not account for anything like the magnitude of the cost increases we have seen.
It is certainly a more challenging environment to manage than in 2001, but that’s not a one-way street. New technologies, especially the internet, have enabled universities to automate many tasks hitherto performed manually. Numerous areas have benefitted from this, such as the Registrar’s Office (part of Central Admin), where administrative and student contact processes are vastly different to those in place in 2001. This form of change has generated substantial cost savings in numerous central areas, which makes the overall cost escalation even more difficult to accept.
If increased complexity and expanded governmental and legal requirements really were the main cause of the increase in Central Admin costs, most universities would be impacted to a similar degree, but they are not. Some are far better than others; Central Admin consumes 5.9% of Total University Expenditure at the lowest-cost school, but 11.7% at the highest. Interestingly, average Central Admin costs at Québec’s Top 25 universities have increased much less – from $50 million to $72 million, or a relatively modest 45%.
Another defence is the contention that some of the additional cost is revenue-generative because it is focused on attracting international students (who pay significantly higher tuition fees), and other forms of funding. The relationship between the cost and the resultant income cannot be assessed because the CAUBO numbers do not differentiate between domestic and international fee income, and Universities Canada’s enrollment numbers do not differentiate between domestic and international students. While it may well be cost-beneficial to spend money to earn additional income, it’s difficult to accept this as a partial justification for increased costs when it appears that much of the “new” money is funding things other than education.
All of this is why fingers are pointed at growing central “empires” and a major rise in the salaries enjoyed by top university administrators. There is widespread frustration at the degree to which bureaucratization has dominated the campus landscape over the past 20-30 years, and at the associated cost.
And the numbers on this site do not even include the cost of another controversial element that has drawn campus and public ire in recent years – the accelerating practice of paying full salary to departing senior administrators for one or two years after the end of their contract, at a cost that can reach seven digits. That cost goes into a different (and more difficult to find) area of the accounts.
Senior administrators tend to be highly sensitive to outside criticism of the cost of Central Administration, and the push-back can be vehement. It’s not an easy criticism to make from inside campus because it is levelled at the university’s top brass, and that can make life difficult for anyone with the courage to do it. But there are some very tough questions to be asked. They will be difficult to answer at most universities, especially at those with the highest cost levels.
The challenge of resolving these issues is deepened by the fact that the consequences of doing so are most painful for those who have to make that decision.
(In a small number of universities the cost of Central Administration may reflect a more centralized or more decentralized approach than the norm. Further insight can be drawn in the Central and Decentral Staff Costs topic HERE.)