Postcards from the educators

October 12, 2007

Tim Birkhead's frustrations struck a chord with academics burdened by unthinking bureaucracy. My recent column on stifling administration ("Blank faces and bungled systems", September 21) elicited an unprecedented response from academics across the country, describing how their energy, enthusiasm and efficiency is sapped by cumbersome financial bureaucracy.

It wasn't all doom and gloom though. One researcher told me how his prestigious institution's expensive financial system was abandoned mere weeks after installation because of its devastating inefficiency.

Those less fortunate struggle on, relating tales of monumental ineptitude. One told me of his PhD student who spent four hours trying to place an online order to get her thesis bound in the university library (rather than the ten minutes it used to take to walk over and talk to someone). Another described how he had tried to order aluminium foil (to make a light-proof seal for Eppendorf tubes containing fluorescent dye) only to be told that foil was "catering" and that since he had no catering funds on his research grant he could not order it.

Another researcher requested a crucial piece of equipment costing a few hundred pounds only to be informed that suppliers of that sort of equipment were not "on the system" and no, he couldn't buy the kit himself and claim back the cost.

Some of these stories would be laughable were it not for the crippling consequences for research and teaching. One researcher told me how his research programme had ground to a complete standstill since the new financial system was introduced.

Even if issues like the aluminium foil are mere teething problems, one depressing fact remains: the amount of extra work created by these systems is and will remain unacceptable.

I suspect that part of the administrators' motivation for introducing these financial systems was to increase efficiency. However, an administrator producing a balance sheet in record time is not an end in itself and of no relevance unless it enhances the efficiency with which teaching and research are performed.

Assuming that the new systems do indeed save administrators' time, it should be obvious to those running the show that finance staff should now be redeployed across university departments to ensure that the new systems actually work.

One of the other points that emerged from those who complained to me about their university's ineptitude was their desperate desire to remain anonymous, fearful of bureaucratic reprisal.

Higher education is indeed in a sad state if its members are unable to voice their opinions and point out what is no more than common sense.

The ultimate irony in all of this is that while academic staff are busting their guts to secure increasingly scarce research funding and writing research papers aimed at the highest-ranking journals in order to maximise the university's chances of obtaining a high ranking in forthcoming assessment exercises, the administration continues to place one obstacle after another in their path.

Do our leaders not know the story of the goose that laid the golden eggs?

All members of a university should be working towards a common goal. To facilitate better coordination and overall effectiveness, all of us in higher education need a better sense of what different people do within our universities.

- Tim Birkhead is professor of behavioural ecology at Sheffield University.

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