Go back

To improve university culture, focus on red tape

Reducing bureaucracy might be a magic bullet capable of fixing multiple problems, says Marcus Munafò

As a member of a journal’s editorial board, I know that finding reviewers is becoming more difficult. The number of invitations we need to send has risen steadily as more and more are declined. Many other journals and funders are seeing the same.

Academics have typically contributed enthusiastically to the wider academy through activities such as reviewing grants and manuscripts, giving talks and writing for professional journals. Such efforts usually go unremunerated and undetected by workload models. 

As demands on academics increase, the ability to contribute to these ‘service’ activities becomes strained. At some point, something has to give. How can time for good-quality research and other scholarly activity be protected when there are no longer extended periods free from teaching, assessment or administration?

Good intentions

There is no shortage of people trying to provide an answer. In May, the House of Commons Science, Innovation and Technology Committee released a report on reproducibility and research integrity, following written and oral evidence from across the research ecosystem. 

One theme of the report is giving researchers the time to do high-quality research. MPs urged the vice-chancellors’ group Universities UK to implement a coordinated policy on minimum protected research time for research staff, and UK Research and Innovation to trial a funding programme with an emphasis on ‘slower’ science.

Then came the initial decisions on the 2028 Research Excellence Framework. One change is a much greater focus on environment and culture—ensuring that how researchers work and the support they receive are recognised, as well as what they produce.

The intentions are good, but the answers are unlikely to be straightforward. Student numbers have grown significantly in the past few decades and staff numbers have not kept up. The REF wants to be part of the solution but is itself one of a growing number of demands on institutions. 

To find at least a partial answer, perhaps we need to look back to July 2022 and yet another report: the Tickell review. This identified seven ways to cut research bureaucracy, such as harmonising common processes, simplifying where possible, matching burdens to risks and rewards and pursuing transparency, fairness and sustainability.

Could slashing bureaucracy be the magic bullet to reduce workload, protect quality research time at all career stages and improve research culture in universities?

Bristol fashion

In response to the Tickell review, the University of Bristol conducted an internal review of research bureaucracy. This provided a number of insights and gave staff an opportunity to have their concerns heard and responded to. 

It also highlighted a number of challenges to the seductive notion of ever-greater efficiency. First, bureaucracy is a life cycle concept. Slashing red tape at the beginning of a process may simply increase friction down the line. Demands must be proportional across the entire process. 

Second, a demand can feel bureaucratic if its purpose is not well understood. Many reporting requirements are relatively new; unless their rationale is well articulated, they may seem nugatory. Understanding a demand, and how it benefits the institution or the sector, can improve engagement and reduce ennui. If senior management or outside bodies ask for information or action, do they also have a responsibility to be transparent about how that informs their behaviour?

But the third challenge is that some perceived bureaucracy is genuinely inefficient. This may reflect the process itself; it may also reflect the underlying culture of the institution or sector. 

In an environment lacking in trust, or a culture of control where staff feel they lack the autonomy to support an organisation’s ultimate mission, people may default to the ‘computer says no’ model, prioritising process over outcomes. 

No one wants this, but culture is a slippery thing and can manifest in many and subtle ways. As they ponder their responses to the Tickell review, MPs’ report and REF decisions, institutions, funders and others may need to reflect on both their processes and their culture. 

Is there, for example, too much reliance on systems and too little on the less tangible benefits of personal relationships? And how can fixing that be reconciled with not making who you know matter more than what you know?

Academia remains, ultimately, a human capital enterprise. Its systems and culture must allow this human capital to thrive. The increased focus on environment and culture in the next REF, and elsewhere, can help achieve this.