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The administrative staff of Sri Lankan universities should be supported to improve

“In the good old days, they were given instructions [and] they produced well-written reports. But not anymore… We can’t count on them… They make a lot of mistakes… We want to do everything by ourselves. In fact, that’s what most of us do…we prepare reports, and they just file them.

That was a Sri Lankan academic’s comment about her office staff, and her experience is far from rare. This is a major concern because universities rely on four legs: students, scholars, administrators, and office and support staff. Unless all four are equally strong, they are likely to fall.

The ideal office worker is highly organized and detail oriented. They are expected to have a sense of responsibility and take ownership of the specialist roles they fill. When Sri Lanka was a British colony, working a desk job held prestige. Parents were looking for men in government office jobs to marry their daughters. I remember a former chairman of the University Grant Commission saying, “At that time, in universities, the clerks were of high quality. We relied on them to learn the administrative system, and their reports were impeccable.

What seems to have happened is that Sri Lankan public institutions, including universities, have shifted their focus from the quality to the quantity of clerical staff they employ. We have office staff for every function, and as the number and complexity of functions increases, so do the number of positions. Everyone is happy: the bosses cheerfully signal their importance by the additional number of office workers working under them, and there is no shortage of candidates for these new positions. The problem is that once in office, modern office workers seem to focus less on serving the country and more on their own service, constantly advocating for better pay and conditions, but doing little to justify such rewards.

I’m not a behavioral scientist, but I’ve been a long-time watchful observer of office staff behavior and attitudes. I know well all those middle-aged clerks stuck to methodical, paper-bound routines, with no experience using a computer and no desire to learn, focused only on maintaining their salaries. Many are mothers of school-aged children; they have to wake up at 4am, cook for everyone and then go to the office by train. No wonder, one might say, that they fall asleep at their desk several times a day. No wonder they don’t have dreams for work – only dreams for work. But such attitudes continue to do universities a serious disservice.

Then there are the experienced office staff who revel in the little trappings of authority. You would hope they would share their knowledge and experience with others – but that would diminish the pleasure they derive from demoralizing newcomers.

As for these newcomers, the younger ones are often busy bees, running around answering phone calls, rummaging through files, carrying messages between divisions. But all this activity is for nothing. They are not organized. They are not convenience stores. They are restless, reckless, instinctively dodging as problems return from the pile of unfinished files on their desks.

As the number of office workers increases, it can be expected that the mechanisms for evaluating their performance will be improved. In fact, the opposite happened. While establishing effective performance management systems is on the agenda of many public sector reform programs, these are rarely implemented. Moreover, proposals often completely neglect clerical staff because their contribution is considered insignificant.

It doesn’t have to be trivial. In the case of universities, we forget the time that academics spend on routine tasks that could have been done by competent office staff. I heard a professor say that the data entry work he has to do for his research project – because his office staff are not well trained in handling the virtual platform – was particularly unbearable during the pandemic . All that time he spends on relatively mundane tasks is time spent on teaching, advising, and substantive research.

When asked what he looked for in a soldier, Confucius said, “I wouldn’t employ someone who fights a tiger with his bare hands or crosses a river with broken legs and dies with no regrets or remorse. I would employ someone who is considerate when faced with difficulties and deliberate when completing a task. We must also encourage these personnel in the universities. We must reform the thought patterns of our clerks and workers, strengthen their skills and increase their commitment.

We need leadership to instill vigor, not through fear, but by bringing more fun to work and celebrating success. We need fun organizations, not to play traditional clerical games like passing the buck and pulling the strings, but to achieve our organizational goals, together.

Everyone at the university must play their part. But this requires that no one be forgotten in the corporate conscience. Office staff should be included in reforms, discussions, development programs and performance reviews.

Thus, the fourth leg of the university chair will be able to bear the weight of society’s expectations.

Chani Imbulgoda is in a senior position at a state university in Sir Lanka. She holds an MBA from the Postgraduate Institute of Management in Sri Lanka, where she is currently working on her PhD in Quality Assurance in the Higher Education Sector.

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