Becoming very efficient

The latest suggestion that Irish universities have been offered by the government and some others is that they should be able to make further savings (and thus manage funding cuts) by being more ‘efficient’. What does this actually mean? If the ultimate efficiency is what we are after, then of course we should just admit the students and, immediately, hand them their degree certificates without all the awkwardness of teaching and examining. By those means we could get truly excellent results in an amazingly efficient way.

Of course we must accept that the current budgetary environment has implications for funding, but we should stop presenting budget cuts as ‘efficiency opportunities’. I am not suggesting that there is no scope anywhere in the system for cost saving efficiencies, but you cannot know that without analysis.

In the meantime, the same game is being played in England. The Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) has just announced that over the current year there will be £82 million in ‘efficiency savings’ in the university sector. In reality this has nothing to do with efficiency, it is just a budget cut with an annoying name.

The lesson from all this is, I think, that the discussion about how to handle public funding pressures needs to be conducted more sensibly and more honestly. If it is, the universities will be in a much better position to respond constructively.

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7 Comments on “Becoming very efficient”

  1. kevin denny Says:

    Well an increase in efficiency could reasonably mean doing the same (or more) with less. Can it be done? I’m sure we could all nominate a few possible cut-backs that wouldn’t do any harm but, on mature reflection I think I won’t, at least in public.
    So lets be honest, we’re going to have reduce something. Fewer students? Bigger classes? Less research? Nobody likes to have to pick the losers so expect a lot of buck-passing.
    Given that the problem is a short- to-medium term one I think one can make an argument that one should make cut-backs that don’t do any long term damage: “at least do no harm” as Hippocrates advises. Its not smart to cut back maintenance to the extent that a building has to be replaced at great expense in a few years time.
    While it sounds self-serving, a similar argument could apply to academics: if you lose them they probably won’t come back in a hurry. That said, my impression is that there are not many places for them to go at the moment. So the problem is one of deadweight loss: only a fraction of academics are on the margin of quitting but they are difficult to identify so being “nice” to all of them is pretty wasteful.
    Giving the universities more flexibility in terms of pay & conditions might help. Our present system acknowledges that medics have greater outside earnings opportunities than others (hence a higher pay scale for their profs) but do you really believe that there are no differences between all the other disciplines?
    More generally, an imaginative (& brave) government would cut the sector loose: define some minimum service provision it expects, guarantee funding sufficient for that and then say “you are on your own, lads” allowing the sector to charge tuition fees if it wanted, set their own pay scales, compete for research funding and so on.

  2. Ernie Ball Says:

    Here’s are some possible efficiency gains:

    1. Reduce all administrator salaries over €150,000 to €150,000. The nonsense according to which “we have to offer astronomical salaries to attract talent” sits poorly with the fact that most of those in question are promoted internally or recruited from within Ireland.

    2. Ban all spending by universities on consultants. We all know what consultants are for: ass covering. You want to implement an unpopular or risky or plain stupid policy so you hire a “consultant” with a known bias in favour of that policy. A pointless and expensive practice.

    3. Stop wasting money on administrative perks like presidential mansions. What does it say when among the first acts of two incoming university presidents is to order up 7-figure refurb/builds of the presidential palace?

    But of course none of this will take place. “Efficiency” will instead turn out to mean increased teaching loads and class sizes. Just as in the wider society, the elites will remain untouched while those at the coalface will have their shovels and pick-axes removed so they can start digging with their bare hands. It’s more “efficient” that way.

  3. iainmacl Says:

    Somewhat depressingly, at the UK’s Higher Education Academy conference this week, a spokesperson for the CBI was asked what she meant by greater efficiencies and how the sector could shave off the millions being talked about in the looming budget cuts. She actually said “Well for example, how many of you work in individual offices? Open plan is perfect.” To say that there were gasps of disbelief would be understating the response.

    However, some of the private contenders for the HE ‘market’ may well be looking at call-centre type operations to deliver their ‘accelerated’ degrees…….

  4. Brian Lucey Says:

    Well, that wont save more than a fraction of a percent in TCD. We dont do much in the way of consultants, and we dont pay the admin mandarins much. UCD now…. 🙂
    The prez mansion, #1 Grafton Street, is depreciated away.

    • Ernie Ball Says:

      TCD, then, is a model of frugality. Not surprisingly, it’s the third-level institution that has been most resistant to the new/old managerialism (i.e. the application of management models derived from 1950s manufacturing to 21st-century universities).

      UCD, as you say, is another story entirely. I reckon millions could be saved by these measures. Then we can sell the presidential mansion and earn a couple of million more. Then we can subcontract out the entire university administration to Accenture or McKinsey or Halliburton, since those firms have about as much interest in or knowledge of higher education as do the current lot and, consequently, while there’d be little to no change in policy at least the genteel veneer would have been stripped off.

      • kevin denny Says:

        The re-furb of the UCD’s presidents house wasn’t the decision of the incoming president. As I understand it, Art Cosgrove made that call knowing that the house was in serious need of some TLC and that it would be difficult for his successor to order it. Its a nice house but “mansion” is stretching it. Since it is on campus I am not sure that selling it is an option.
        The sub-contracting suggestion is very droll. I don’t know what the spend on consultants is. It was certainly significant a few years ago when there was a lot of restructuring & new IT systems being brought it. I suspect it is a lot lower now.

        • Ernie Ball Says:

          You may suspect that the spend on consultants is much lower but the fact is: no one knows. That information–how public money is spent at the university–is top secret. In fact, I happen to know that trade union members of the governing authority, to which the finance committee ostensibly reports, are not allowed to have access to budgetary information. Which makes a mockery of the idea of any sort of democratic governance at the institution. Only the inner circle on the finance committee really know what the money is spent on.

          University Lodge was renovated at a reported cost of €3 million. You may not consider a house that has had that much spent on it a “mansion” but most people would.

          In any case, I’m not so sure that there isn’t a huge amount of money to be saved at places like UCD by trimming the extreme bloat in the administration in recent years. The alternative is to cut into the core missions of the university: teaching and research.

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