Red tape is alienating academics from their own research and work

Academics are drowning in bureaucracy.

When South African academics want to set up a new degree module, they’re entering into a process that can take years to germinate. These modules must be approved through an incredibly cumbersome process – departmental, school, faculty, various university quality control committees, an institution’s senate, the South African Qualification Authority. Only then can they be registered by the National Qualification Framework.


This is just one example of the bureaucratic chores that now occupy academics’ days. It’s a reality that prompted me to edit a new book called Making Sense of Research (Van Schaik, Pretoria, 2018). It’s written by supervisors, deans, research coordinators and lecturers who offer suggestions about how students and academics can negotiate the reams of red tape that typify modern universities.


Bureaucracy is necessary to manage large institutions. But it can also be alienating. It alienates the researcher from their field or discipline. It alienates those who are researched from those who conduct the research. And ultimately, it alienates both researchers and the researched from the academy.


Take the example of student protests held under the banner of “fees must fall” between 2015 and 2017. Events unfolded on an hourly basis at breakneck speed. These deserved careful study and scrutiny by trained academics who knew what questions to ask and what information could be gleaned. But procedural knots meant it was impossible to secure ethical clearance, for instance, and this hampered knowledge production.

That in turn hampered the benefits for the public, who could have learned from research conducted on the ground during these important protests. And then researchers are dismissed as being distanced from the real world – irrelevant and out of touch with breaking events. The problem, of course, is that real world events don’t conform with research committee schedules.


Dodging red tape

This trend towards bureaucratised research and teaching, particularly in the humanities, has come about because outputs must be measured, managed, and made to justify bottom lines to qualify for state subsidies. Everything from students – too many – to resources – too few – must be managed, administered and audited.


Bureaucracy, as anyone who has encountered it knows, makes it increasingly difficult to get any work done. For academics this means that field work is placed on the back burner. Just registering a topic for field work can take many months and involve multiple committees and numerous university divisions. These time-consuming and increasingly cumbersome procedures – though often necessary – delay the start of work, students’ progress through a degree and publications linked to the planned field work.

Manuel Kalama

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