Archive for June 6, 2010

Among the Crachach

Posted in Education, Politics with tags , , , , on June 6, 2010 by telescoper

Catching up on the news by looking through my copy of last week’s Times Higher, I came across an account of a speech made by Welsh Assembly Minister Leighton Andrews about the Future of Higher Education in Wales. I mentioned this was coming up in an earlier post about the state of the Welsh university system, but wasn’t able to attend the lecture. Fortunately, however the text of the lecture is available for download here.

There is some discussion of positives  in the speech, including a specific enthusiastic mention of

the involvement of the School of Physics and Astronomy in the international consortium which built the Herschel Space Observatory.

I was pleased to see that, especially since much of the rest of it is extremely confrontational. Much of it focusses on the results of a recent study by accountants PriceWaterhouseCooper that revealed, among other things, that  52% of the funding provided by the Welsh Assembly Government for higher education goes on adminstration and support services, with only 48% to teaching and research. Mr Andrews suggests that about 20% of the overall budget could be saved by reducing duplication and introducing shared services across the sector.

I can’t comment on the accuracy of the actual figures in the report, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they were correct.  They might shock outsiders to the modern higher education system but most universities – not just those in Wales – seem to employ at least as many administrative staff and support staff as “front-line” teachers and researchers. I’m likewise sure that the Welsh Assembly employs many more such staff than there are Members…

Within academic Schools we need to employ staff to handle financial matters, student records, recruitment, admissions,  and general day-to-day administration. On top of that we have technical staff, to support both research and teaching laboratories as well as computing support staff. Add them all together and you definitely have a number comparable to the number of academic staff,  but  they don’t account for 52% of our salary bill because they are generally paid less than lecturers and professors. The mix in our School is no doubt related to the specific demands of physics and astronomy, but these staff all provide essential services and if they weren’t there, the academic staff would have to spend an even greater part of their time doing such things themselves.

As well as the staff working in individual Schools there are central administrative departments (in Cardiff they’re called “directorates”) which don’t employ academics at all. I have no idea what fraction of Cardiff’s budget goes on these things, but I suspect it’s  a big slice. My own anecdotal experience is that some of these are helpful and efficient while others specialise in creating meaningless bureaucratic tasks for academic staff to waste their time doing. I think such areas are where 20% savings might be achievable, but that would depend on the University having fewer and less complicated “initiatives” to respond to from the WAG.

The Times Higher story discusses the (not entirely favourable) reaction from various quarters to Mr Andrews speech, so I won’t go into it in any more detail here.

However, I was intrigued by one word I found in the following paragraph

 I was interested to learn recently that some members of university governing bodies have been appointed on the basis of a phone call. Who you know not what you know. It appears that HE governance in post devolution Wales has become the last resting place of the crachach.

Crachach? Being illiterate in the Welsh language this was a new one on me. However, I found an article on the BBC Website  that revealed all.

The term used to denote local gentry but 21st century crachach is the Taffia, the largely Welsh-speaking elite who dominate the arts, culture and media of Wales and to a lesser extent its political life.

It goes onto say

The Vale, Pontcanna and Whitchurch are crachach property hotspots while barn conversions in Llandeilo and cottages in Newport, Pembrokeshire, provide weekend retreats.

Hang on. Pontcanna? That’s where I live! I wonder if they let foreigners join the crachach, provided of course they learn the Welsh language? I note however that “arts culture and the media” is their remit, so science apparently doesn’t count. Perhaps I could start a scientific wing? Maybe those Welsh lessons will be useful after all. I’m told that the crachach always manage to get tickets for the big rugby matches…

On a more serious note, however, that part of Leighton Andrews’ speech stressed the importance of university governance. If he’s true to his word he should look into the Mark Brake affair. I think the taxpayers of Wales have a right to know what’s been going on.

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