We've come to a sticky end

Tasks like ordering tape and test tubes halt academic work, Tim Birkhead finds

March 13, 2008

I'm visiting another university looking for a colleague. He's not in his room, so I head to the departmental office and step right into a mini-drama. "Stop using the frigging sticky tape!" a feisty secretary shrieks at a rather frightened academic (who happens to be my colleague). Neither he nor the secretary sees me, so, like an ethologist, I hide among the convenient vegetation to see how this drama will unfold. "But ..." my colleague stutters, "I simply want to put a letter in the post, but the envelope won't stick, so I have to seal it using sticky tape."

"But if you finish the sticky tape, we won't be able to get any more!" the secretary screams.

The mini-debacle centres on the university's central management. The institution has a purchasing agreement with a stationery supplier. It was initially OK, but it quickly resulted in a downgrading of product quality (but not cost), which is why the departmental envelopes do not seal.

Over and above this, the university has a recently acquired online purchasing system that requires, so the secretary pointed out (and I quote), "several hours of farting around on the computer" to order more sticky tape. As she tetchily explains, her colleague Janice has "already spent three hours trying to order more sticky tape, and the system won't let her".

Even more frustrating is that when Janice is finally allowed into the system, she will not be able to order just a single roll of sticky tape; she will have to order a box of several hundred rolls from the stationery supplier, and all of them - like the envelopes - will fail to function properly after just a few weeks.

The irony is that I am here to see how my colleague is getting on with the new online purchasing system that his university introduced some six months ago. I'd reported on their system (which was generally felt to be a grossly overpriced disaster) as it was being introduced back in September, and thought I'd find out how things were going six months on. The sticky tape saga told me all I needed to know, but I decided to be objective and ask my colleague and several others how they were getting on.

The message was clear. Many academics had completely disengaged themselves from the system, foisting it instead on their unfortunate juniors, technicians and assistants. For those forced to use it day in and day out, some lucky individuals had mastered it, learnt to live with its quirks and found it relatively straightforward to order eppendorfs, molecular reagents and even sticky tape, provided of course you want a large quantity and are prepared to wait for it. (Can you imagine Amazon saying, OK, you want a copy of Alexander McCall Smith's new book. Well, you'll have to take ten copies - it is more economical that way - and they should arrive some time in the next three weeks.) Academia can be wonderfully perverse: on the one hand, academics are expected to pump out their research - to be first in the quest to be first - but at the same time they are forced to use systems that sap their energy and create unnecessary obstacles.

Perhaps the most striking take-home message from my visit was the concern over the vast increase in workload the new system had generated. Although many academics weren't using it, it was very clear that those who were had to spend hours and hours of extra time each day ordering stuff. From those I spoke to, I guessed that there had been a ten or 20-fold increase in time across the entire department dealing with the new system.

However, there was a major problem for the academics in that the new system cannot (or will not) provide them with a statement of their expenditure. For a department that relies on ordering large amounts of consumables and equipment, not knowing how much cash researchers have left in their grants makes managing their resources a farce.

While the university may be allowed to overspend, any academic who does so will incur the wrath of their funding body. But, my colleagues argued, how are they supposed to control their spending if they have no idea what's going out of their accounts?

The other problem with the system is its prehistoric slowness: a minimum usually of three days between ordering something (which is known to be in the university) and getting it. Hardly what a rapid-response research-active department needs.

Everyone I spoke to hankered after the old days, when it was one person's job to order the equipment that others needed. It was a quaint system, they told me. You decided what you wanted, went to the "departmental orderer" and said: "Hi, Dave, I'd like a roll of sticky tape." He would reply: "No problem, it will be here by lunchtime today." Medieval in its simplicity perhaps, but staggeringly efficient.

So, six months on, what's the verdict? Continued disillusionment, disenfranchised support staff and frustrated academics. The simplest solution would be to abandon the new system. But given that the university might not want to lose face by totally abandoning its £6 million investment, there's another solution. Two in fact. The first is to allow departments to go back to their simple tried and trusted system while allowing the centre to continue to use the new system.

The second solution is one I can take care of - I'll just nip across to the union shop and buy a roll of sticky tape and give it to Janice.

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