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VIEWPOINT: Financial accountability

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There may once have been a time when being a university professor or lecturer was a cushy job – but if there was, that time is long past. These days, academics not only have to teach, research, and mentor students, they increasingly also have to raise and manage their own funding. And they often have to do all this in the face of job insecurity as tenured positions become scarcer.

In short, academics now have to deal with the same pressures and realities as the rest of us – which include being accountable for the money that they spend.

Universities are funded from the public purse, through student fees and by research grants from various public and private sources. There is a clear moral and practical obligation to account for how these funds are spent. Yet all too often universities – perhaps misled by the myth of the unworldly academic – fail to provide their staff with the tools they need to make the job easy.

In these cases, accountabilitiy is delegated to clerks and finance departments – but since they are not the ones spending the money, they are not in a good position to explain that spending. This is a recipe for confusion and inaccuracy. It’s also wasteful – having a dedicated finance person in every department and research unit is very inefficient.

There is an alternative. For any organisation, the optimal situation is one where there is transparency and accountability at the level of the cost centre manager, whether that’s a department head, research group leader, or individual academic.

Of course biochemists and sociologists and historians and astrophysicists are not accountants, and they shouldn’t have to be – but if the right tools and systems are available, nobody needs an accountancy degree to assume basic responsibility for their spending.

At the local universities which are getting it right, academics prepare and submit budgets and then account for how those budgets are spent, just like everyone else in the world. It doesn’t even need spreadsheets – there are web-based systems that read directly from core financial systems so that information is always up to date and accurate. This doesn’t seem to have any negative effect on anybody’s ability to do their job – quite the opposite, in fact. Having to confront the realities of limited funding can help to make people more creative as they find ways to do more with less.

The rewards of success are a faster, more transparent budget process, better financial management, greater ownership of the process, smoother allocation of funds – and more money available for the core business of teaching and research. ❐

Author: Kevin Phillips CA(SA)