Flawed Trac delivers only garbage

November 19, 2009

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills patently believes its own business-derived propaganda ("FEC scrutinised as deficit lingers", 12 November).

The transparent approach to costing (Trac) typically demands robust, reliable and accurate reporting of how academics spend their time, defined across 15 categories or more. It assumes that this will take one hour per year and is flawed for four reasons.

First, academics' work does not fall into discrete categories, so allocation errors and inconsistencies of approach are inevitable.

Second, academic work is not bounded by "office hours" or places of work. A respected maths professor once confessed to me that he "dreams mathematics", and that Trac troubled him because he didn't know how long he dreamt.

Third, Trac assumes a standardised "working week" of a fixed number of hours, and reports activities as percentages against that. Most academics work well beyond such a hypothetical week. It follows that they may be teaching the correct number of designated hours, but because of overworking to undertake research at the levels demanded, their reported percentage of teaching time falls to such an extent that it looks like they are "robbing" teaching to pay for research.

Fourth, Trac relies on academics carefully analysing and recording their own work. Most don't because they can't and simply construct the figures they think their university wants. Some institutions threaten scholars with audits, but how can an accountant verify how much time a mathematician spends dreaming about maths?

This deeply flawed and inoperable system is now lauded as producing "reliable and robust" data - data that BIS uses to further squeeze university funding. If it relies on this garbage, then it is easy to see how the banks pulled the wool over the same ministerial eyes.

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