Cost control hits 'basics' at Middx

April 8, 2005

Staff told conference attendance must be approved

Basic "scholarly activity" essential to an academic's working life is at risk as universities make ever more stringent financial cuts, lecturing unions warned this week.

The warning came as The Times Higher obtained documents from Middlesex University that reveal a clampdown on staff expenses, including restrictions on staff attending academic conferences.

Andy Pike, national official for higher education at lecturers' union Natfhe, said that Middlesex's move was unprecedented in his experience, but "not surprising given the financial predicament many institutions find themselves in".

"We are increasingly seeing the financial squeeze restricting academics' essential professional development and scholarly activity. Until now it has been through restrictions on their time, with increased workloads, but a conference ban is new to me," he said.

Sally Hunt, general secretary of the Association of University Teachers, said: "The AUT would condemn any attempt to stop academics attending conferences that help further their work and personal development.

"If any institution is now saying that staff cannot attend conferences, then they are making a demanding job even more difficult."

In a flurry of memos late last month, staff at Middlesex were told about new financial restrictions, including a ban on using taxis to travel between the university's many campuses.

Dennis Parker, dean of the Business School, told his staff: "The university is experiencing increasing financial pressures that are likely to affect next year's departmental budgets... (the) university executive has decided that cost savings should be sought with action to curtail expenditure commencing from April 1, 2005."

He said attendance at conferences was allowed only "if the proposed expenditure is specifically funded from a research or other grant", or if it is expressly authorised at executive level. All schools have to compile exhaustive lists for the executive of all proposed overseas travel, including reasons for the visit.

"It is necessary for us all to pull together on this in order to reduce costs and to help the university to address financial pressures successfully," he said.

Peter Worrall, acting dean of the School of Computing Science, said the executive had warned that it will cut schools' budgets by five times the amount of any unauthorised spend.

Natfhe's Mr Pike said: "Allowing academics to attend conferences is an essential 'loss leader' for universities. It may be expensive, but the money is more than recouped through the benefits to a university's reputation, recruitment and research profile when staff are engaged in essential continuing professional development and scholarship."

A spokeswoman for Middlesex said: "The University has decided to tighten approval for all conference attendance. This is one of a number of pan-university cost-saving initiatives that will help protect other essential areas of spend. These measures underline the urgent need for improved funding for universities."

Neither Natfhe nor the AUT had heard of such a cut before.

The Times Higher reported in August 2002 that staff at Cardiff University's top-rated School of English, Communication and Philosophy had been told to pay their own way if they wanted to attend conferences. But the restriction was later lifted.

The general threats to scholarly activity (which includes time to keep up with research developments as well as attending conferences and networking with others in the field), particularly pressures on time caused by excessive workload, will be a key theme at Natfhe's annual conference next month.

A motion from the union's higher education committee will instruct Natfhe to campaign for a reduction of workloads. A motion from Yorkshire and Humberside says that many academics are compelled to spend too much time doing routine administrative and secretarial work, to the detriment of research and scholarship.

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