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.