Paperwork and Bureaucracy

Paperwork and Bureaucracy

The art of making the possible impossible and increasing our workload

13-11-2023 · Opinion article

Mark Kawakami, assistant professor of Private Law, is worried about the increasing amount of paperwork that academics, who already struggle with workload, have to fill out. Is there a way to cut some bureaucracy out, he asks in this opinion article.

Less is more. At least that’s what I tell my thesis supervisees. Inspired by Todd Rogers and Jessica Lasky-Fink’s Writing for Busy Readers, I’ve been (re)learning how to be a more effective writer (i.e. less lawyerly). This often entails cutting things out and simplifying. This post is not another rant about writing though. This is about the increasing amount of paperwork that we – as academics – have to fill out above and beyond our research outputs and a desperate plea for less.

Reducing our workload is a very popular topic, but is there enough being done in furtherance of this goal? Not only are we being asked to do more, but there is seemingly more paperwork that comes with it. For example, in the Online Suggestion and Complaint Box that our Faculty Council recently organized, one anonymous colleague noted the following: “The amount of meaningless paper [work]/bureaucracy we are continuously asked to fill seems always to be on the rise. Take [for example] the assessment description and reflections that the Board of Examiners now demand. This distracts staff from their core tasks of education and research. We really need to do better on that front.”

Another example of this problem is the increasing number of documents that we are required to prepare for our assessment meetings. Another anonymous colleague noted: “I recently had my jaargesprek [assessment meeting] and for that I had to fill in more than 9 forms and I think… that is an example of the bureaucracy in our faculty… I think it is ridiculous that such an administration is required for 1 meeting.”

The preparation necessary for our assessment meetings is a topic worth elaborating further. Before, there was the Teaching Portfolio, but then we added the SMART agreement, and now we’ve moved on to the Personal Development Plan under the auspices of Recognition and Reward framework. Add to this, the fact that we must manually input our publications and activities into PURE. We have to curate and collect teaching feedback from IWIO, fill in the new CPD content, and so on. Things could even be worse as there are other faculties that still rely on Solver to keep track of one’s teaching contributions.

There is something to be said for accountability and due diligence, but for those filling it in, there is a frustrating sense of redundancy. I know for sure that the administrators generally mean well when proposing new policies (and the paperwork that follows). However, in executing their plans, the implementation can create unintended consequences. This brings us to our main question of: are the additional documents that we are being asked to fill in really beneficial or can we cut them out?

Let me assume for the moment that paperwork is my passion and defend the bureaucracy. First, accountability and record-keeping are necessary. Whether we like it or not, the university is also bound to certain commitments imposed by the quality agreements. There is also the implementation of the aforementioned Recognition & Reward framework, which requires us to provide more input (i.e. more paperwork). As one colleague (who shall also remain nameless) stated more bluntly, “if you’re going to ask for a promotion, you can at least fill out some paperwork and prove your worth.”

But let me also present the other side. Bearing in mind the time and effort necessary to complete and compile the documents required (not to mention the time it takes for the readers to process them), can less be more here? For the sake of reducing unnecessary workload for everyone, I feel that this process can be better streamlined and less fragmented.  

For whatever it’s worth, I recently filled out the Personal Development Plan myself and found the process, including the conversations with my line manager, to be quite rewarding. It gave me a better sense of what I have been doing and what I want to do in the future. However, when I had to subsequently fill in the Teaching Portfolio, which essentially asked the same questions (albeit in a different format), I found myself cursing at the unnecessary redundancy. As my anonymous colleague noted, we need to do better here.  

Mark Kawakami


Author: Redactie

Photo: Shutterstock

Tags: mark,bureaucracy,writing,workload,opinion


Corine de Ruiter

Hi Mark, I couldn't agree more. I have been working in academia (and 4 different universities in the Netherlands), and compared to the start of my career, the amount of unnecessary and redundant paperwork has only increased. Over the years, many demands for 'accountability' have been added (e.g., the assessment plans, reflections and evaluations you mention). My main question is: why is this so? I believe the main answer if that we academics have 'given away' our work to the policy makers, administrators and educational 'consultants'. We need to take back control and say: 'enough is enough'. If there is a new demand for paperwork, we should say: 'okay, if you want me to do this, something else needs to be removed from my plate, or I will not do this.'

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