Monday, 7 June 2010

Form filling - where will it end?

Universities are about the joys of learning and discovery, the creation and transmission of knowledge, and guiding students along their own personal educational journeys. At times, the research might go unexpectedly slowly, ideas might not come when they are most needed, but there are always students who need support, and watching them develop and mature during a degree programme is a wonderful process. This always keeps me going until the research starts to go better again.

Increasingly, though, our universities seem to be getting themselves bogged down in endless form filling - some of it mildly sensible, some of it quite silly, in my totally unbiased view. Let me just mention a few examples from my own recent experience.

First, research. A couple of years ago I secured a research grant to carry out a study of some development issues in Ghana (this was a small part of a much larger programme), and when my university first had confirmation of the funding, the very next e-mail I received said, quite bluntly, 'Paul, now you have this funding, you'll need to fill in a couple of forms'. Needless to say, I refused, and simply said that if the university wished to benefit from this funding it should not be hassling me with additional form filling. I heard no more about these forms, and still don't know what they were about. It evidently hasn't mattered too much, as the research was duly done.

Next, travel. Of course, we have to be accountable for what we do and how we spend public money, since we don't want to run into the kind of public opprobrium that MPs encountered in the past couple of years when some rather lax practices came to light. But in my own university we now have to fill in a form to get permission to spend, then complete an expenses form accompanied by receipts once the particular trip has been completed. The system works quite well, to be fair, but it does seem fairly heavy in terms of form filling. Moreover, each time we travel (especially overseas), we're supposed to complete some sort of risk assessment form for the university insurers. Personally, I've managed to avoid filling in these latter forms by always having my own travel insurance so I don't depend on the university.

Last, meetings with students. Whether at postgraduate or undergraduate level, it has always been accepted good practice to keep rough notes of significant meetings with students, especially when supervising dissertations, projects and the like. My own practice these days is to print out one of the recent e-mails between me and the student concerned, and then to scribble some notes onto that e-mail once the next supervision meeting has taken place. This rough and ready approach has served me well for many years. It's quick, simple and effective. However, now we are supposed to record such meetings on standard forms and even lodge copies in the School or departmental office. This seems to me way over the top, and largely a waste of valuable time. In fact the only reason I can see for doing this has nothing to do with keeping track of students' academic progress per se, but is more about ensuring there is a good paper trail in place in case some student decides to mount an appeal against their degree results. This is not a good reason for so much form filling, and I have not followed this new practice myself.

In fact by now the reader might perceive that I am not always a terribly cooperative academic. Where form filling is concerned, this is completely true, and is indeed one the reasons why I eventually agreed an early retirement deal with my university. On the other hand, where strictly academic matters are concerned, such as reading a colleague's new paper, advising colleagues about formulating a research grant proposal, or advising students about possible career paths, I like to think that I am closer to the other end of the scale - very cooperative, very collegiate.

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