Let's get on the right Trac

Institutions must embrace Hefce's costing methodology if they are to get the funding they want, says Stuart Palmer

February 11, 2010

Deeply flawed", "inoperable", "garbage". These are just some of the words deployed recently in Times Higher Education to describe Trac - the Transparent Approach to Costing. But such comments show that there is still much misunderstanding about what Trac provides for higher education institutions.

Trac is the methodology that universities use to cost their activities and to understand how resources are deployed, including the controversial time-allocation surveys carried out by individual academics. It is about providing the reliable and credible data that are essential for universities' survival and success, and it is key to protecting their public funding.

Trac started as an accountability requirement, and institutions have legitimately chosen to implement and use it in different ways. This reflects the differences in culture that exist throughout the sector, and the varying levels of interest from senior managers.

Some vice-chancellors say that they "cannot manage the institution" without knowing where academic staff effort is invested; others see the priority as maximising their research income; and some see Trac as just another externally imposed burden.

All institutions have to meet a basic set of "minimum Trac requirements", which the recent Research Councils UK Quality Assurance and Validation (QAV) exercise showed are not yet fully understood or implemented in the sector. This is serious, as all university funders are now under extreme pressure to show efficiency and value for money from their investment in higher education. The results of the QAV review were an "own goal" by the sector: they have led to further quality assurance requirements and enhanced scrutiny.

In strict financial terms, Trac has enabled the sector to benefit from an annual additional £1.3 billion of public funding and has provided the evidence for a more sophisticated debate on financial sustainability, in the sector's favour.

This debate - how to maintain a world-class sector - is perhaps the single biggest challenge we face over the next few years. We need Trac because it is one of the main methods funders will use to measure our funding needs.

But Trac is not only about accountability and protecting the sector's funding. We are all aware that if Trac is not useful to institutions, its credibility will diminish and this in turn will reduce the confidence of funders. So we recognise a trinity - accountability, utility and sustainability - as the drivers for the development and implementation of Trac.

I would agree with critics that the "utility" agenda has not been given the priority it needs as external requirements have tended to dominate the agenda, and the sector has not provided a proactive view of how it wishes to measure and manage its own costs and sustainability.

I am chairman of the Higher Education Funding Council for England's Trac Development Group (TDG) and one of our priorities is to change this balance.

However, it's not all gloom. Institutions tell us that reliable and credible activity cost data are essential and that Trac provides this for them. I do understand that some institutions do not find that Trac fits well with the way they manage resources internally and that some academics see accounting for their time as a chore, done purely for external purposes, which produces results that they do not believe.

However, these weaknesses are not inherent in Trac, and can be addressed if we can have a more positive dialogue about the different ways it can be implemented. This subject is at the top of TDG's agenda - with the aim of helping institutions to produce data they believe in and to realise greater utility. We have to do this if we are to avoid undermining funders' confidence in our seriousness as a sector about managing our resources in a more efficient way.

All constructive contributions to this agenda are very welcome, and I would encourage those with concerns to engage with the work we are doing, rather than simply repeat criticisms that have been around for many years.

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