Search This Blog

Sep 11, 2023

The vicious complexity and the cost of figuring things out

 The ever-increasing cost of figuring things out in higher education is a dilemma that warrants serious attention. First, let's establish the thesis: the complexity of administrative and regulatory frameworks in higher education is escalating to a point where it is becoming a burden rather than a facilitator of educational goals. This complexity is not just a nuisance; it has real costs—financial, intellectual, and emotional.

Take, for instance, the proliferation of managerial positions within universities. These roles are often created to navigate the labyrinthine regulations, audits, and compliance procedures that have become part and parcel of higher education. While these positions may be necessary to some extent, their multiplication signals a troubling trend: the increasing difficulty of "figuring things out."

Next, consider the example of financial aid for future teachers. Government bodies and NGOs aim to support more students entering the teaching profession. Each organization introduces its own program, complete with unique rules and requirements. The State Department of Labor adds another layer by offering apprenticeship money, which comes with its own set of unfamiliar conditions. The result? A bewildering array of options that are difficult for anyone to navigate. The irony here is palpable: funds meant to facilitate education end up creating a complex puzzle that few can solve.

This complexity extends beyond financial aid. Accounting rules, human resources processes, purchasing protocols, and even travel and bursar procedures have become increasingly intricate. Academic Affairs is not immune; it too adds layers of complexity that require specialized staff to decipher. The question then arises: who benefits from this complexity?

Here's the paradox. Managers and administrators, the very people who often create these complex systems, are also the ones who benefit from explaining them. They build a maze and then charge for the map. This raises ethical and practical concerns. Is the primary function of these roles to facilitate education, or have they become self-perpetuating entities that exist primarily to decode the complexity they helped create?

I've been in this field for over three decades, and I've seen the landscape change dramatically. I've found myself, despite my experience and intelligence, staring at documents, trying to make sense of their content. If someone like me struggles, what does that say about the system?

So, who is in charge of simplifying things? Ideally, it should be a collective effort. Universities, regulatory bodies, and government agencies need to recognize the toll that complexity takes on educational objectives. Simplification doesn't mean a lack of rigor or accountability; it means creating systems that are transparent, navigable, and aligned with the core mission of education.

In conclusion, the cost of figuring things out is escalating, and unless there is a concerted effort to simplify the administrative and regulatory landscape, the very purpose of higher education risks being undermined. The time for action is now; otherwise, we risk drowning in a sea of vicious complexity that serves no one well.

1 comment:

  1. Andrew Taylor4:00 PM

    I absolutely agree. Reminds me of the adage that lawyers seek election to legislative office so they can make the law they will then charge a fee for “helping” clients with.

    It’s the “Tullock Paradox”, where rent-seekers wanting political favors can bribe politicians at a cost much lower than the value of the favor to the rent-seeker. The classic example of rent-seeking, according to Robert Shiller, is that of a property owner who installs a chain across a river that flows through his land and then hires a collector to charge passing boats a fee to lower the chain. There is nothing productive about the chain or the collector.

    I did the accounting of the after-school music teachers in two rich-family schools. I dashed it off on a word document in a few minutes each month. I made it as simple and explanatory as possible. In both schools, their Auditors expressed relief and many thanks.

    Admin is like Benoît Mandelbrot’s “Coastline Paradox” where the closer scale you measure, the longer the coastline gets, to infinity…