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6 October, 2005

A better way?

Support facilities at a certain UK university operate as semi-autonomous commercial ventures.  If, say, the English department wanted tea, coffee and biscuits for a conference, they'd have to pay Catering (via an internal transfer of funds), and indeed pay Conferences for a venue.  External organisations can use Catering, Conferences, the Photographic Unit, University TV, Graphics, the Bindery, the Print Unit, etc. too, on a more directly commercial basis.

In theory, it's a reasonable system, but in practice it means graphic designers and similar specialist non-admin staff have to allocate considerable time each week to financial admin, and all such ancillary departments are under pressure to prove their ongoing financial viability.

A further problem is that since everything has a price, departments may be tempted to go without, provide for themselves (good for the overall University, I suppose) or go elsewhere.
For example, English might borrow a function room or lecture theatre from another academic department or college rather than pay for Conferences' dedicated facilities, and use their own teabags and kettle rather than buy-in from Catering, and consequently look less professional to visitors than they might if specialists had been involved.
Similarly, when consumer-level digital cameras are so widespread, few would pay 10 (per use) for professional photography by the Photographic Unit, and websites, leaflets, posters, etc. might look a little amateurish.

One result of ancillary departments seeing declining custom and unchanging costs is that they have to increase their prices, thereby driving away more custom, or close. The real flaws in the system begin to be exposed when a batch of professional photography costs 65 (not including printing), or 75 on CD-R. 10 for a blank disc. I don't think so.

If ancillary services were free at the point of use, to internal users, I'm sure they'd be used more, thereby supporting those support facilities and (re)introducing a greater impression of professionalism to the departments' events and output.

Needless to say, I'm discussing the economic model as a whole, not the specific application of it by any one institution. I just wonder how others operate.

Incidentally, I happen to know that the official publications of the University in question are produced in a different way, so are drastically less affected by this internal market. Publications doesn't charge departments for its services, and there's no question of it cutting corners in terms of graphics, photography and printing. Could this be an admission that when it really matters, the internal market is inadequate?

Heh. Thinking about it, this could be extrapolated to free-market capitalism vs. collectively-managed communism, couldn't it? Nah; simplistic and coincidental.

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