Hidden costs in home working

October 22, 1999

Universities are accused of passing the costs of online learning on to staff and students in a study which has found that up to 90 per cent of academics use their own computers to work from home.

Paul Bacsich, professor of telematics at Sheffield Hallam University, questioned managers in 104 universities and found the majority were ignoring the long-term financial implications of shifts in work and study patterns.

"We have uncovered costs being absorbed by academic staff that were previously hidden," said Professor Bacsich.

He found that universities were "troubled by who will pick up the bill" once these previously hidden costs had been made apparent.

The survey reveals that most academic staff have bought computers privately to use at home and these are increasingly being used "to counteract the shortfall in the working day".

"Institutions must find a suitable method for dealing with hidden costs," says the report. "In most cases, the cost is borne by the individual and remains unrecorded."

In addition to the purchase of equipment, including hardware, software and renewable items such as ink cartridges, examples of hidden costs include the time spent working via email or the internet, plus technical support for students.

Extra training needs were also significant, as were hidden costs such as counselling or extra laboratory support.

Students were also found to be carrying the can. About 50 per cent are thought to have access to a home computer and the survey reveals they are spending, on average, Pounds 81 per year on computer consumables.

Although universities were aware of the problem of transferring printing costs to students - who typically download web pages in place of photocopied lecturer notes - few recorded costs.

"Because they are not properly categorised, costs may be easily overlooked and therefore remain hidden," says the report.

"Institutions display only a vague awareness of these hidden or unrecorded costs. By failing to perceive there is a problem, the chances of overcoming this obstacle are made insurmountable."

The survey also reveals a reluctance among managers to consider any form of timesheet to record the extra hours worked by staff and much concern about the "costs of costing" online activities, particularly informal staff-student contact.

"This study confirms that university managers know too little about student and staff behaviour, attitudes and lifestyle," Professor Bacsich said.

The Costs of Networked Learning by Paul Bacsich, Charlotte Ash, Kim Boniwell and Leon Kaplan, funded by the joint information systems committee of the United Kingdom higher education and research funding councils.

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