Universities Are Drowning in Paperwork

November 04 | 2020

What is the use of inquiries by the Ministry of Science and Higher Education to Russian public universities? Learn more in this new article from the Center for Institutional Analysis of Science and Education at the European University at St. Petersburg.

Katerina Guba


Photo: The number of requests from the Ministry of Education and Science to state universities is growing from year to year. (Photo by Christa Dodoo on Unsplash)


No one likes preparing bureaucratic paperwork, and universities are no exception. Faculty are the ones to most often lament the bureaucratic burden they carry. They frequently have to prepare paperwork that has barely any relevance to the teaching process. Furthermore, paperwork takes time away from professors’ main responsibility—preparing for lectures and seminars.

University administrators rarely voice their opinion on the matter, even though the principal paperwork burden falls on them. Indeed, the curriculum—for which faculty are responsible—is just a small part of the overall workflow created by the requirements set by the Russian Ministry of Science and Higher Education.


More Papers—Unnecessary and All Other Kinds

We examined the website of the Integrated Portal for Communication, which lists those organizations under the purview of the Russian Ministry of Science and Higher Education, and discovered that the number of requests from the Ministry grows from year to year.

In addition, these requests are often worded in a way that makes understanding and fulfilling them difficult, even if a university has all the necessary information to do so.

Along with the number of requests, the volume of “frequently asked questions” from universities themselves also grew. An especially high number of questions were registered in 2020: universities asked almost twice as many questions over the course of the first nine months of this year as they did during the entirety of 2019. Common reasons for university inquiries include:

  • ambiguous phrasing of instructions for completing forms;
  • interfaces that are not intuitive or user-friendly; and
  • glitches.

The answers given to these questions do not always resolve the issue, forcing universities to call and write to tech support.

Moreover, extremely specific requests—for example, those directed at medical schools—are sent to all universities. Yet universities cannot ignore these requests and are obligated to fill out a report, even if the request does not match the university’s profile.

This red tape consumes time and energy that could otherwise have been devoted to the university’s development.

The Ministry’s demands on universities are growing. And universities, it seems, have less and less administrative resources to handle them.


The Number of Professors and Other Staff Is Falling

We explored how the number of university staff members has changed by dividing them into two categories: full-time faculty and other staff.

There is a trend toward a slight decline in the number of professors:

  • In 2013, the median student-to-faculty ratio was 100: 11.5
  • In 2018, that number rose to 100: 9.8

At the same time, the number of other staff is falling at a faster rate: from 30 staff members per 100 full-time students in 2013 to 24.8 in 2018.

Across the entire sample of public universities, the number of staff is falling more rapidly than the number of faculty members.

This decline in staff levels is in line with the roadmap laid out by the Ministry, which calls for reduction in the number of administrative staff at a much more rapid pace.

This can only mean that remaining personnel—faculty and university administration—will have to shoulder an increased workload.


Useful Initiatives Are Becoming Useless

Communication with the Ministry is a priority for universities. This causes many universities to struggle to take on initiatives other than urgent Ministry requests, which cannot be ignored.

Initiatives require engaged people, time, and the understanding that they too are important. Universities have the potential to improve their work in a variety of spheres, especially education quality. Unfortunately, they are too busy with the ongoing routine workload to set additional goals for themselves.

As an example, let us turn to “University Admission the Right Way”—a service helping prospective students select their future universities. The Ministry launched an updated version in summer 2019. This service for prospective students is supposed to provide access to an advanced search for universities. Applicants can obtain information about all education programs, including tuition, competitiveness, minimum GPA, the availability of seats, and so forth.

One might expect universities to be interested in voluntarily providing information about their programs. However, our analysis of the website in 2020 showed that many universities did not end up providing such data.

The portal contains information primarily from those universities that were obligated by the Ministry to obtain beta access to the website.

If an applicant uses the website, s/he will discover that

  • 72% of education programs provide no information about tuition; and
  • 61% of programs say nothing about minimum GPA.

This makes the website, which is promoted by the Ministry, less useful than alternatives.

Undoubtedly, a letter from the Ministry could help fill the website with helpful information. But the fact that a sound and useful initiative is not supported by universities unless there is a mandate from the Ministry speaks for itself.


Data Quality Leaves Much to Be Desired

Is the government utilizing the vast array of information that it requests from universities in its decision-making?

This is a difficult question. There is some indirect evidence that, in fact, the information universities provide has little value. After all, if these data were actively utilized, the Ministry would care more about their quality.

In working with publicly available data about Russian universities, we more than once encountered data quality issues. Data are often incomplete, full of omissions and unrealistic numbers.

We compared financial information published on bus.gov.ru and on the Monitoring the Effectiveness of Educational Organizations website.

  • It turns out that not all public universities have published reports on bus.gov—at least 7.5 percent of university reports are missing.
  • Among published reports, some remain incomplete (for instance, 15 percent of universities have not reported total revenue).

This indicates that instruments for monitoring data quality are in a poor state.

If data were in high demand for analytical purposes, they would be publicly available in a format convenient for performing analysis. However, only a select number of data sets are freely accessible and those that were published some time ago are not being updated. Meanwhile, the available data sets are not the most useful ones from the standpoint of analysis.

For example, the aforementioned effectiveness monitoring program has been conducted since 2012. Universities fill out forms, information is published on the website, and detailed records are available for each institution. Still, to conduct data analysis, one must copy or retrieve data directly from the website—they are not available in machine-readable format.


* * *

The widely discussed concept of data-driven decision-making can be implemented especially successfully in science and education. Universities and scientific institutions are already collecting all kinds of information about themselves, often at significant cost.

The Ministry of Education could reduce the burden on universities by creating a functional infrastructure, including:

  • a user-friendly interface;
  • clear instructions; and
  • adequate support at every stage of the process.

And yet, the more challenging objective remains utilizing the information collected from universities in the decision-making process, in order to ensure that universities’ efforts are not futile and that they are not under the impression that paperwork is merely about ticking boxes.


Katerina Guba is Director of the Center for Institutional Analysis of Science and Education at the European University at St. Petersburg.

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