Audit vampire has bled us dry

January 28, 2005

Society suffers when academics' time is measured in pounds and pence, laments Ian Rotherham

I hung up the phone after turning down a request to give advice to the regional environment forum.

I wanted to help this worthwhile conservation project but could find the time only if they paid me. Without a fee, my workload wouldn't bear it.

With my experience of environmental, planning and conservation issues, I should be playing a role in such hugely important, voluntary activities.

Indeed, in the Eighties, friends and colleagues at the Sheffield universities pretty much drove the regional environmental agenda.

They had the time - I do not.

My research into the economic impact and value of social and environmental projects, and my experience working for consultancies, local government and voluntary bodies, has given me a good understanding of the need for careful resource management and accountability.

The £100,000 I generate for my university every year from "hard" consultancy, as opposed to "soft" research grants, pays my way.

Driven by audits, indicators and bottom lines, universities, like all public services, scrutinise the costs, value for money and benefits of every initiative.

But the education accountants ignore those costs and benefits that have no easily calculable price.

At community level, the mutual synergies of town and gown fuel a vibrant intellectual and social life. Universities support and advise local groups and organisations, local authorities and government agencies. Sheffield's conservation, heritage and community projects were established and backed by academics and are today worth millions of pounds.

Senior university staff have headed funding bids for inner-city regeneration, set up wildlife trusts and restored heritage parks and botanical gardens free of charge. Others are appointed to the committees of the Peak District National Park. Politicians and the media also get free help.

But this true value of the university is taken for granted. When advice is withdrawn or if it is no longer given for free, that's when the grumbling begins.

Financial constraints and a more competitive research environment mean greater workloads, spiralling administration and high prices placed on academics' time. We do not have the time to indulge in voluntary work.

As we lose the capacity to give freely, the projects, organisations and good causes we would have liked to have helped lose out and the cultural lifeblood is diminished.

Few worthy causes such as local community groups or wildlife trusts can afford to pay my fee of £550 to £1,000 a day, which is based on real costs plus university overheads.

I have been approached over plans to restore and manage unique ancient woodland.

Because I have been unable to get involved, ancient trees have been felled, badger setts destroyed, a historic building demolished and grant aid and other advantages missed.

When academe engages with the community such activities add value and quality of life to a city. But unpriced they are unvalued by universities and the Government.

The massive contribution that higher education institutions can make to local communities, beyond their obvious economic impact, is becoming difficult.

This is the brave new university world, accountant-driven and audited.

If we want to restore our role in the broader society, we need to value education for more than just its price. Perhaps if we were allowed to devote just 5 per cent of our time and resources to our local community, everyone would benefit.

Ian D. Rotherham is a reader in the Tourism Leisure and Environmental Change Research Unit at Sheffield Hallam University.

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