Funny Money

When I was working at The University of Sydney, we used the term “Funny Money” to refer to the funds and entitlements negotiated between various departments and research groups. The rest of this post is speculation about what that term means. (It doesn’t reflect actual operations at the university.)

I gathered that although the university was one entity (with an overall budget and financial administration), the various departments had their own fixed allocations and had to “pay” each other for services. On top of that, various research groups were semi-commercialised, and sought to charge university departments (for services) much like they would invoice commercial entities. It almost sounds logical in theory (all are equal under a standard capitalist model), but it sometimes felt fairly incongruous with what appeared to occur in practise.

I have the impression that a big problem at most universities has to do with the utilisation and availability of resources. Expensive scientific, medical, and computer equipment needs to be maximally used in order to offset (and justify) the initial outlay and operating costs. Moreover, all that equipment is there for a reason, and underutilisation may often mean that something simply isn’t getting done. Maybe research is being stifled due to lack of access, or computations are taking longer than they ought (because desktop computers are being used rather than supercomputers).

Anyhow, bringing us back to Funny Money. Services departments may find that they can charge a certain (high) rate to commercial entities or departments with bigger budgets, but those rates may put their services out of reach of other departments or smaller research groups. A university may introduce service obligations in order to ensure that resources are available (and maybe pay a basic stipend to service departments to cover these costs). That can take time and foreword planning and may not align well with requirements. So interim (or alternative) measures may be for departments to just get on with it and engage in informal (or formal) agreements and trade.

Items traded may include a wide range of non-financial things: use of rooms and facilities; IT services; teaching support; research students; curriculum adjustment; staff transfers; etc. A whole wealth of things. A whole alternative economy of goods and services. All feeding back into and distorting the capitalist model that a university might strive to impose upon its departments and research groups. So what does “real” money mean to a university staff member or student? Funding is mostly controlled by central administration, but real value may be predominantly determined by demand, resources, and (unregulated) agreements between various groups (with vested interests).

I’m sure that the same sort of thing goes on in the public service and large corporations, but it wasn’t until recently that I began to really appreciate its prevalence in wider society. Who can really explain the ins and outs of the current global economic mess in terms of sound theoretical models? I feel that the only conclusion is this: All money is Funny Money.