EU: Low awareness of comparative accounting

European universities have a low awareness and a lack of knowledge of how to exploit accounting comparisons to measure performance, Staska Jamnik of Ljubljana University, Slovenia, told the EUA conference.

Speaking at a special session on the topic, Jamnik described a series of obstacles impeding the development of such accounting techniques, such as the continued existence of different accounting systems within Europe’s higher education sectors. Even within individual universities, there could be different IT accounting methods in specific faculties, he said.

A constant lack of resources dedicated to higher education accounting also made progress difficult. Nonetheless Jamnik said his university was in the process of unifying accounting systems between faculties and introducing a unified information system. But this was a slow and demanding process that would not be completed until after 2010.

Amsterdam University corporate controller Pieter-Jan Aarttsen told the audience there were three basic conditions to be met before comparative cost accounting could be rolled out: the university’s primary activities had to be identified, this had to be followed by an analysis of the source of costs generated by these activities – (he called them “primary and secondary drivers”) – and on that basis a cost allocation scheme should be established.

One key element of such systems was an accurate system timing the work of academics, he said. “Measuring academic effort in time spent is the best cost indicator, in any case as long as external funding is not output-related. Knowledge about time available and time spent can refine and deepen the notion of academic activity.”

But whether European university accounting systems could reach the same common level to be really comparative, Aarttsen was not convinced. He questioned whether level playing fields were really attainable and also criticised results-driven funding systems.

“No cure, no pay” was unworkable, he stressed, because it would be in conflict with the academic “code of conduct” promoting free inquiry. That aside, only institutions that knew the full costs of their activities could judge if they were operating on a financially sustainable basis, Aarttsen said.