The cuts, the cuts – cleaning up

So what’s in store for us next? Well, a report in Times Higher Education tells us that staff in Sheffield University are now having to clean their offices themselves; or rather, the normal cleaning service now happens only every two to three weeks. The whole issue was made public by the British academics’ trade union, the University and College Union. The actual circular was also published by Sheffield University on its website. It appears that the university is seeking to make savings on cleaning services and is encouraging staff to assist in various ways, including emptying their own bins.

The UCU general secretary, Sally Hunt, was apparently outraged:

‘The health and safety of staff is paramount and I am utterly amazed that the university is prepared to cut back on cleaning when it is under swine flu alert.’

I can’t help feeling the reference to swine fly is somewhat irrelevant in this context. Nevertheless, there is a serious issue in there somewhere, and it is clear that as all universities in this part of the world now face serious cuts in public funding there will be more cutbacks in services as institutions struggle to make ends meet. In Ireland this will be made worse by the attempt on the part of the government to stop all recruitment to non-academic posts, including the filling of vacant posts. Given a normal turnover of around 10 per cent per annum in such posts it would not take long before crises arise. The apparent view that you can protect ‘frontline’ educational provision by stopping non-academic appointments is very questionable.

But on the other hand, we are part of a country in crisis, and we must expect to share some of the burden. What we don’t at this point know is how much of this the sector can take without running into serious operational problems with longer term implications. In the early 1990s the then British government introduced a series of annual ‘efficiency gains’, which were if I recall in fact an annual reduction in recurrent grants of 1 per cent. Back then there were serious debates about how far this could be taken, and at which point efficiencies would turn into more serious structural damage.

But this debate needs to be an intelligent one. Claiming that a request to staff to assist in routine tidying endangers health and safety may not be the most sensible way to address this. Equally, pretending that neglecting maintenance and repairs can be a longer term solution to funding problems is also dangerous.

Universities cannot be run on the cheap. But they do always have some potential opportunities to conduct their business more efficiently. Getting that balance right at a time of crisis is vital, so that we can be confident that when economic conditions improve we will not be found to have been damaged beyond repair.

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5 Comments on “The cuts, the cuts – cleaning up”

  1. Aoife Citizen Says:

    English academics get their office cleaned? Why wasn’t I told? What am I doing here?

  2. Vincent Says:

    You do not really think that Irish Universities are run on the cheap. And those English academics must not be doing all that much if a cleaner can fit a hoover through the door. The Dean of Arts had the only office in UCG that had clear acreage before his desk and this only because he had another office. The usual office could be seen as designed to kick the Earth off its axis with the weight of books.

  3. Donal Says:

    Innovation can play a huge part here…

    By looking at new ways to achieve the same result, you can take advantage in advances in technology, science and process development.

    The recent migration of DCU users to Google Apps for your domain is one example.

    DCU’s ISS team benefits by lowering the overhead of maintaining the email system (these resources can be allocated to projects that have been starved to date). Students / staff / alumni benefit from a system with less spam/junk/viruses and a better way to communicate (searching, IM, etc). If each staff member saves 10mins deleting junk mail each day that quickly adds up…

    My currently role (PM at Google) encourages me to innovate constantly. The rewards? The scope and complexity of what can be achieved increases while the costs decrease.

    While software continues to advance, revisiting and reviewing processes and policies on a regular basis (not a rubber-stamp “it’s still good” but a thorough review looking for opportunities to reduce bottlenecks and recurring issues) can make a huge impact to an organisation. In some cases, you can identify an area that is understaffed causing an impact on the rest of the organisation to deliver results. Whenever there is a hand-off from one team to another, reviewing and strengthening the relationships between those teams leads to efficiencies that are hard to quantify but can reduce the end-to-end delivery time (each side has a better understanding of what the other is expecting and can adapt their internal processes so they are better aligned).

  4. Of course English academics get their offices cleaned…wot wot, what did you expect!

  5. Unbelievable that in the midst of an epidemic they would cut professional cleaning costs when it is needed the most.

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