Friday, 6 May 2011

Inefficient Efficiency

The Research Councils have recently sent all universities details of their plans for 'more efficient' (i.e. less) funding for projects. Entitled ‘Efficiency 2011-15: Ensuring Excellence with Impact’, the proposals include heartwarming coalition-style cuts, including snipping the allowance for inflation to zero, and the indirect rate by 3.5%. To be applied retrospectively, natch.

Most alarming are their half-baked proposals for equipment charges. Under the new system (rushed out and already in place, from 1 May) RCUK will decide what percentage of the equipment costs they’re prepared to meet on a ‘case-by-case’ basis. Not only that, but for expensive bits of kit (over £121.5k) you'll have to put together a 'business case' (that's another 2 page attachment to the application, thank you very much) and check out what other equipment is already available in your area.

Now this begs a number of questions, and brings to mind some hilarious scenarios:
  • If we don't know what percentage of the equipment cost RCUK will fund, how do we know whether we can afford to 'match fund' them? When the University approves the application for submission, does it have to provide a blank cheque for the remainder?
  • What if RCUK decides to fund the project but not the equipment?
  • What is the 'area' that needs to be checked for existing equipment? Is it geographically restricted? For Kent, 50 miles from London, is it every London university? Or the whole south east? As far as Brighton? Or - as the crow flies - Essex? Is it any university covered by a Network Rail card?
  • How do we check? Do we get on the blower to all 121 universities on the off chance that they might have an electron microscope they're not using?
  • What if the other university that has the kit doesn't necessarily want to share it?
  • What if - weirdly - they're already using it?
  • What if something happens when a piece of equipment is being used by an outside organisation? Who's liable?
I can see lots of potential for a slew of websites to service this new industry: ‘lastminute.com' could offer special last minute deals on equipment which is going spare, and 'confused.com' could compare the offers of equipment from competing universities. Better still, how about 'speed dating' events for the potential user and provider of equipment?

The possibilities are endless. I’m looking forward to clarification from RCUK on these with relish.

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