The View From Here

Higher education is not alone in its obsession. Cashitis, or inflammati on of the wallet, is a national disease
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The Independent Online
Money may indeed make the world go around, but the degree of power and control it now confers on those in universities who have it, or can get it, is one of the most worrying features of campus life.

Academics are traditionally supposed to float above such crude matters as cash. I remember a university buildings officer who once summed up neatly the lay person's view of unworldly dons. Several had written to him complaining about noise during the construction of a new building. "The trouble with you academics," he said, with barely concealed contempt, "is that you expect me to build you a new department with no money and rubber bloody hammers."

Consider just some areas where money is now predominant. Estimates of quality in teaching and research are both tied to explicit cash rewards. Academics who win sizeable external research grants often enjoy greater prestige than those who gain smaller awards, bad news for those in arts departments, where huge grants are a rarity. Selection committees and promotions boards are strongly influenced by grant earning power.

Then there are the hours consumed, in both formal meetings and informal conversations, debating budgets, cash crises, balances, conference funds, travel grants, virement, savings, the ludicrously named "efficiency gains", financial systems, expenditure forecasts, equipment grants, business plans. Immense power over decision making is wielded by finance committees, or by purse holders in departments. For some individuals financial accountability can consume as much time as academic work, more even.

I once tried explaining our mania for costing everything to an Austrian school inspector. "Some of your small schools in rural areas would not be regarded as cost-effective in Britain," I told him. He looked blank at the very concept. "But if children live up a mountain, they must be educated up a mountain," he said.

Higher education is not alone in its obsession with money. As BBC producers calculate the likely cost of sticky tape and light bulbs for their next series, hospital consultants sweat over their predictions of how many ingrown toenails they will excise in 1998, and at what price. Cashitis, or inflammation of the wallet, is now a national disease.

There is nothing wrong with trying to spend money wisely. What concerns me, however, is the sheer amount of time and energy that are siphoned into money and its penumbra. If one operational definition of efficiency is `maximising the time and energy spent on the essence of one's job' then we are becoming hopelessly inefficient.

Perhaps the naked influence of money in higher education is not new. A few years ago a university senate debated whether to carry on validating courses in local colleges. Passionate speeches sizzled across the chamber, as one head of department after another fulminated against an earlier vice chancellor, back in the 1960s, who had bullied them into setting, approving and marking college papers.

Most were adamant that colleges would have to go elsewhere. Heads of department found the whole business odious, they insisted, and would vote overwhelmingly for ending validation at the next meeting of senate, when renewal was to be debated: "No proper debate ever took place ... dragooned into it against our will ... erodes precious time for research and writing ... distracts us from our own students ... opportune moment to shed this intolerable burden."

The vice chancellor was a wily old bird, however. "Don't worry," he told the anxious college principals, "I shall simply offer them money. It always works."

He then wrote a letter to each department. In it he explained that he fully accepted the many points made in senate and was hereby releasing every head of department from the unwanted obligation to validate college work. Perhaps the head of department might wish to offer the job to another colleague, he went on, possibly a young impoverished lecturer eager to earn extra cash. Or some external assessor might be hired to release the department entirely.

By the way, he concluded, fees paid to validators were being increased considerably. The handsome new figure for each subject was at the bottom of the letter, so he would be grateful if heads of department could send him the name of the person to whom this amount should be paid in future.

The letters of reply were hilarious to behold. Money had absolutely nothing to do with it, most insisted, but one did have a duty to one's local colleges. Moreover, it would be most unfair to add further to the burden on new lecturers busy establishing themselves in teaching and research. The head of department would, therefore, make the supreme sacrifice and nominate himself for this vitally important job.

In a money mad world, if the price is right, no rubber hammer is necessaryn

The writer is professor of education at the University of Exeter.