Central Administration, as addressed on this site, is an amalgam of 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.) This site re-joins those functions under the name 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. See the CAUBO Guidelines HERE.
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 completely understandable, but that’s not the real issue – just, due to the publication of sunshine lists, its most public face. These are highly 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 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 rapid staffing build-up at lower levels – 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. Each new position, of course, requires its own administrative support team. Numbers for more and more of these individuals are appearing in the sunshine lists.
This build-up is, at most universities, 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 higher central costs; a 20% increase in enrollment, for example, does not mean that the university needs a 20% larger senior leadership team, because the impact of 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.
Any discussion of Central Administration costs needs to start with a perspective on their order of magnitude and recent growth, because the numbers are shocking:
- In 2001 the average Top 25 university spent $43 million (in 2018 dollars) on Central Administration, but that had increased to almost $89 million by 2018 – a REAL increase of 105%.
- At the U-15 universities outside of Québec the average cost has increased from $47 million to $111 million – up 138% in real terms.
- Across the “Top 3” (Toronto, UBC and Alberta) it has risen from $73 million to $208 million – up 183%.
- Average Central Admin costs at Québec’s U-15 universities have risen from $61 million to $91 million – up a relatively modest 49%.
The detailed definition for Central Admin (accessible through the link above) means that we should be comparing apples with apples.
It’s important to assess these costs using several different angles of measurement. The central administrative activity oversees the affairs of the entire university, so some of the measures must be related to total university expenditure. Central Admin’s cost is borne by the General Operating budget, which requires another measure. Inside General Operating, Central Admin competes with other functions for funding, notably Instruction & Non-Sponsored Research – the key teaching area, so another measure should assess their changing interrelationship.
All these measures are shown in the Rankings Tables at the foot of the page, which include assessments of the actual dollar impact of this dramatic escalation in cost levels.
While some universities are certainly better than others, the numbers reveal that the growth of Central Admin cost levels is a widespread issue – and one with an extremely high price tag. This is the main area in which being better than the average is not necessarily an attribute; as stated on the Front Page, in the midst of an epidemic, being “less sick” than your neighbour doesn’t make you well.
At many schools, Central Administration appears to have rendered itself immune to the restraint and cutbacks it has imposed on other sectors of campus. The argument that it’s somehow okay for Central Admin costs to maintain their share of total expenditure during a period of real income and enrollment growth is facile. It assumes that it’s acceptable for the costs of the central bureaucracy to increase in direct proportion to enrollment AND incomes that are rising far faster than inflation. But Central Admin costs haven’t just maintained their ‘share’ – they’ve increased at a rate well ABOVE the combined impact of inflation and enrollment, and well above the core-mission functions. Since 2001, Top 25 Central Admin budgets have increased by over 105%, while Instruction budgets have risen by 81%.
The main “pushback” explanations cited for the rapid growth are the increasing complexities of operating a university these days, and the advent of new governmental and legal requirements. However, it’s extremely difficult to believe that these factors can 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.
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 the 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 two decades, and at the associated cost. It must be hoped that greater awareness of the dollar numbers and growth levels will not just halt this growth but reverse it.
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.
The cost of Central Administration is a high sensitivity area when it comes to outside criticism, 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.
(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 Salary Budget Deployment topic HERE.)
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