It sounds too ridiculous to be true. The revelation that University of Edinburgh administrators are levying fines on teaching staff for leading classes in rooms not properly booked suggests a breakdown in communications between the academic faculty and the University bureaucracy. Our reporting on the fines system in this issue of The Journal includes the news that the School of Philosophy, Psychology and Language Sciences somehow managed to incur £3,500 worth of fines in the 2009/10 academic year alone. As an illustration of the scheme at work, it’s fascinating, but the logic behind the initiative is hard to fathom. If the fines are entirely punitive, designed to discourage deviance from The Grand Plan, then it’s at best a mean-spirited scheme. If it is, in fact, a serious attempt to scrape back some small speck of revenue from the academic budgets, does this indicate that the University’s financial situation might be worse than previously stated?
The automated room booking system is a perfect microcosm of an unwieldy bureaucracy; overcomplicated to use at the best of times and obstinately unwilling to accept changes. But the frustration it inspires in tutors - perhaps the most important members of a university’s teaching staff, given their position as the most frequent point of contact for students - is both unnecessary and unwanted. Tutors should feel that their institution is doing all it can to support them, not swinging a punitive baton at minor infractions.
This is not an especially critical issue, and it’s unlikely that students’ studies are being adversely effected in real terms. But if tension between academia and administration starts to impact negatively on teaching on any level, we have a problem. Surely the purpose of this bureaucracy is to support the provision of teaching, not hinder it? To state the obvious, £3,500 is a lot of money to siphon from a single department, especially in these times of shrinking budgets and drastic cuts. That this money is simply swallowed back into the institution from whence it came makes the whole process seem entirely redundant.
From a logical perspective, you have to question just how much damage moving a class to an unoccupied and better-equipped room can cause. The fines system is fundamentally little more than academic pickpocketing; money being taken from departments - and, by extension, from students - for unashamedly mundane reasons. SPPLS may be able to take a philosophically calm attitude to this absurd penalty, but students must question the University of Edinburgh’s motivation for introducing such a pedantic system.