Stop rinsing our research budgets, university travel agents told

Academics left ‘traumatised’ by ‘absurd’ and ‘Byzantine’ corporate booking systems that drain departmental travel funds

三月 16, 2023
Source: Alamy

The rise of the “preferred university travel supplier” was meant to take the stress out of booking tickets for conferences and field trips. But some academics have begun to question the supposed cost and convenience benefits of these one-stop travel shops by citing nightmare journeys arranged by booking firms whose fares vastly exceed those available online.

Slow booking times mean cheaper in-advance deals are often sold out, so staff and students often have to travel at unusual times to save money, a lecturer at a Scottish university told Times Higher Education.

“That ends up with absurdities such as our recent trip to London when six students were each on a different train several hours apart to save money,” he said.

The hotel bill for his group “was also double what I could’ve booked it for when making the request”, he added, claiming the “inefficient” arrangements and “premium surcharges” were “a massive waste of public money when all the UK universities are totted up together”.

Tim Waterman, professor of landscape theory at UCL’s Bartlett School of Architecture, recently highlighted how his university’s booking agent added a £3 fee to every £14 single fare he booked for students on a field trip. He told THE how corporate booking firms often “offered the worst and most expensive route”, stating that “the travel agents are always very slow to respond and thus by the time the bookings are made, they’re last minute and the costs have escalated massively”.

After tweeting about the “absolute racket” of university travel, Professor Waterman said he had been contacted by many academics “traumatised” by dealing with university travel agents, who they claimed were “rinsing research project funds”.

“There is often no saving in time for staff, who do all the booking research themselves before passing the reservation on to the travel agent. For ours, there’s even a website that walks us through how to do all our own legwork before it’s passed on to an agent for them to undo all our legwork,” he said of the “Byzantine system through which it is only possible to make the worst decisions”.

Robert Dingwall, professor of sociology at Nottingham Trent University, said the route selected by the travel agent of a Russell Group university where he recently gave a guest lecture required him to walk 25 minutes between stations in Newark town centre rather than an easier across-platform change in Derby. “It claimed it would save 20 minutes on the journey but the rail fare was about £50 more than the ticket that I requested,” he told THE.

Professor Dingwall said he favoured the system used in Swedish universities where departments were issued with credit cards to spend travel budgets, with strict penalties for abuse. “There are much cheaper and better ways to do it,” he reflected.


Print headline: ‘Trauma’ of using HE travel agents 



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Reader's comments (6)

Exactly- I refuse to use them as they overcharge, underdeliver and waste my time. Rinsing is correct, unless you only travel once a year perhaps. Good academics probably travel twice a month. Also the same with IT procurement in my university. They took a year to deliver a laptop at twice the price to the department. It goes on. My RG university suggests that I don't need an office to work in, or should share or hot desk, storing my books and files, research archive at my own expense. Britain's universities better sharpen up quick, pull back from their bizarre tinpot trajectory, and start treating academics like the globally competative professionals they are because the best are heading for the door at the moment. Many have gone over the last 5 years. Too much anti-science/ scholarship, provincial thinking in the UK HE sector. I'm on the brink of going abroad myself.
When I first moved to the UK (from Australia), I asked for a university credit card (both my AU and US universities issued these to everyone with a 'budget' -- every month you linked each expense to a budget and receipts and if you did not they just took the charges from your after tax salary). I was called in by the CFO and told in no uncertain terms that I was not competent enough to have a university 'purchase card' (part of the culture where university administrators believe (a) academics are not competent and (b) if left to their own devices academics would loot the university finances (which they would obviously not due in a competent manner since (a) implies they can't do anything useful). Instead, I had to use the antiquated system on offer that provided no convenience and no actual savings. In fact the system is meant to extract money from your budget. Two points on this. One is that the 'preferred travel agent' (which in the case of almost all UK universities is actually one travel agency since they all seem to use the same one -- which is little more than a front end for discount booking systems) gives the university a kickback (oops discount) on the volume of activity. However, the university does not give the user this money back. So if I spend £1,000 on a trip, the university is effectively getting a refund of some percentage (which for the university as a whole can be quite substantial). So using the travel agent allows them to tax your budget. Second, if the travel agent does not provide cheaper alternative that exist (e.g., I was forced to pay almost double for a flight inside the US when I could have gotten it cheaper if I paid myself using my US credit card) all that happens is that your budget gets charged. So the university gives me a budget but then taxes that budget and forces me to spend the budget inefficiently. I ultimately lose since money I could have used for something else is now wasted -- but they don't care since I would have spent my budget anyway.
They also get kickbacks from hotel chains which skews their hotel selections. One booking company tried very hard to put me as a single woman traveller into a chain hotel near a railway station miles from the university I was visiting. This area was famous for, shall we say, local night time commercial inter-gender transactional relations and I was expected to walk through it. The risk to my welfare was considerable. I had to kick up a massive fuss to be accommodated in a safer area in a suitable hotel - which was also much cheaper! I think we should all have a university credit card for travel with the caveat that you will have to personally repay unauthorised overspends. I used to have one in a previous academic job and it worked brilliantly.
PS I got off lightly compared to my colleagues housed in a one-star hotel in India where they all immediately got dystentery and were sharing bathrooms, eventually missing what they had travelled there for. There isn’t a box for this on university risk assessment forms, is there?
I have spent a *whole* week trying to book some straightforward flights through our University’s travel management system - flights that would have taken me 5 minutes to book directly with the airline itself. After days of to-ing and fro-ing they quoted me £4,700 for flights that cost £1600 to book direct. It’s incredibly stressful and time consuming, not to mention a colossal waste of our already scarce budgets.
I have spent countless hours attempting to book what should be a simple trip to the US for my lab to attend a conference. I am forced to use a terribly slow and clunky web portal that offers very limited options for accommodation. I had to collect all personal data from all members and then fight with the travel agent who apparently just re-inputs the data (incorrectly) to book hotels. I'm a university professor with precious time to waste on burdensome redtape and I am horribly irritated by the astounding level of incompetence I have to deal with. If I can't get my job done in this environment I will vote with my feet, there's plenty of universities around the world where I could just walk in and get a job with proper admin support.