Are humanities going begging on the Cam?

Watchdog notes fears that 'inessential' services put academic work at risk, writes Melanie Newman

July 31, 2008

There are concerns about "serious" financial difficulties facing the humanities and social sciences at the University of Cambridge, according to the university's internal financial watchdog.

The Board of Scrutiny's annual report, published this week, said: "In certain quarters, there is a view that while science funding is broadly satisfactory ... the School of the Humanities and Social Sciences, in particular, remains under serious financial pressure".

The board said there were internal concerns "over departmental versus 'inessential' central funding". Earlier this year, two members of the university's governing Council signed a "note of dissent" over the university's 2008 budget report, arguing that Cambridge "over-subsidises inessential central services" at the expense of academic activities.

Council member Bob Dowling, a member of the university computer service, asked during a debate in June: "Do we need an underused 'university centre' by the river? How much would be saved by losing it? A million pounds per year? That's 2 or 3 per cent on the budget for the School of Arts and Humanities ... How many central services need to exist at the scale they currently do, or exist at all?"

The board reported that overall, the university is "barely in surplus" at £1.4 million in the black compared with £6.5 million in the previous year, once Cambridge Assessment, Cambridge University Press and trusts are stripped out.

"Although the university's financial position has been greatly improved ... there is still a fundamental lack of flexibility within the system and an inadequate cushion against the unexpected event or an economic downturn," the board said.

The board also said the university should clarify its rules on intellectual property following a botched attempt to commercialise an academic's invention.

As Times Higher Education reported in May, an internal tribunal found that business partners, including the US Navy, "lost confidence" in the ability of the university's technology transfer arm, Cambridge Enterprise, to manage the exploitation of a titanium production process developed by Derek Fray, professor of materials chemistry.

The board noted that the internal ruling "did not escape the notice" of Times Higher Education, "whose headline, on 8 May, stated: 'Cambridge suffers a blow to its international reputation'. Those who read the judgment cannot but concur," the board said.

Although the tribunal found that the university had breached its own intellectual property rules, Professor Fray had been unable to receive any redress from the university beyond "moral satisfaction".

The board suggested revision to the regulations to allow for "more substantive redress" in future, but added that the intellectual property rules were too new for revision to be contemplated at this point.

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