Super 8: money-saving tips for academics

Funding conference attendance out of your own pocket? Don't worry – there are ways to make back the cash through other academic activities. Catherine Fletcher explains.

November 23, 2016
Woman holds up money
Source: Alamy

I was about to post my annual reminder of the deadline for claiming the money that you are owed for your journal articles, when Twitter sprang to life with complaints about the exorbitant cost of attending academic conferences, and the expectation that we should cover all, or part, of our own expenses when we do.

There are major structural issues here, partly (I suspect) fuelled by an assumption based on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) practice that grant funding covers conference attendance, partly by an understandable desire to focus limited research funds on seedcorn and scoping work in the hope that it will generate financial returns. (This ignores the fact that conferences are often the most convenient place to meet international collaborators, but there you go.)

As far as I’m concerned, universities shouldn’t expect staff to attend conferences (and certainly shouldn’t make that part of probation/promotion criteria) without covering the full cost. However, until we get a change in the system, here are some ways that I’ve managed to subsidise expenses or otherwise save/make money in academia (I’m based in the UK).

1) Back to that deadline I mentioned at the start of the article. The Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society collects money on behalf of authors who universities (and other institutions) pay for the right to photocopy or digitise work. You need to register your publications with them by 30 November to get the money that you are entitled to. This can be several hundred pounds so it’s well worth doing and doesn’t cost anything up front. Basically, it’s free money.

2) Reclaim your tax on work-related expenses. If you have to spend your own money to do your job then this is tax-deductible and you are entitled to 20 per cent of it back if you are a basic rate taxpayer or 40 per cent if you pay the higher rate. A percentage of UCU subscriptions is deductible, for example, as are subscriptions to learned societies, some travel expenses and so forth. HMRC issues guidance on how this works. Do not over-egg it with the tax claims or you risk getting in trouble with the tax office (I’m aware of a case where this happened). Reclaiming tax is for things that you need to pay for to do your present job, not for your personal desire to jet out to that Hawaii conference or own all the lovely first editions of the books that you teach. More seriously, the rules mean that career development you pay for yourself is not usually tax-deductible.

3) If you’re travelling internationally for a conference, talk to your international office. Universities do lots of international business that you might be able to help with while you’re there in return for some cash from a different budget heading. You could speak at a school overseas that’s been targeted for international recruitment, visit a university that’s a focus for building research collaborations, or do a regular due diligence visit to an overseas partner for a student exchange programme.

4) Collect your frequent flyer miles on the trips that you do get paid for, and use them to subsidise the ones that you don’t.

5) Academic publishers generally offer an author discount to anyone who has written for them. This applies for authors of chapters as well as whole books. If you don’t have an author discount with that publisher, ask a colleague who does.

6) Reviewing books pre-publication brings you cash, or more books. Post-publication gets you a copy of the book (usually, although certain publishers are trying to replace this with an e-book only...). Very useful if you were going to read the book anyway, perhaps not the best use of your time if it is only tangentially relevant.

7) External examining, which is paid separately to a main academic contract, is typically done by relatively senior academics, but there are other “externalling” opportunities too. For example, I’ve been an academic reviewer for the Open University’s Centre for Inclusion and Collaborative Partnerships, which validates degree programmes at institutions without independent degree-awarding powers. Again, there’s a time/money trade-off, but being asked is a marker of esteem, and it also gives you useful insight into how other institutions work.

8) Finally, if you’re asked to give talks to external organisations, or write for non-academic publications, ask if there’s a fee. They might say no, and then you have to make a call about whether to do it without. I take the view that I should do some public engagement in my salaried role, so a few expenses-only gigs are fine. But not too many.

PS. If you get paid for talks, external examining and so forth, and this is not taxed at source by the organisation paying you, then you should declare it to HMRC.

Disclaimer: I’m not a tax professional. If you have questions on the tax side that aren’t answered on the HMRC website, call HMRC (be prepared for a call-centre queue) or speak to an accredited tax adviser.

Catherine Fletcher is associate professor in history at Swansea University. This article was originally posted on her blog.

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