Casuals, let’s resist universities’ monstrous, penny-pinching ‘systems’

Doing admin is a poor use of your time as an expert. Make sure you invoice for it at your highest rate, says Andy Farnell

四月 26, 2023
Montage of a money grabber claw with origami birds made out of bank notes to illustrate Some money would be nice
Source: Getty / Istock

Talk to academics for long enough and you’ll hear someone say: “Well, we don’t do this for the money, do we?” At that point, we’re all supposed to nod knowingly and feel smug about our noble calling. That needs to stop. We might not do this for the money, but our bosses do, and they’re laughing at us – especially at casual staff.

I have 30 years’ experience of being a visiting professor at institutions all around Europe. I’ve taught for as little as a single hour that I’ve travelled five hours each way to deliver, and for as long as two months “in residence”. I’ve taught undergraduates, postgraduates and postdocs (as well as schoolchildren with special needs). It has been my pleasure to meet and work with so many wonderful students and academic colleagues.

But I can’t say the same of university administrators and their dreaded “systems”. On the rare days that these monstrosities, coded in the 1990s by basement-dwelling IT interns, are actually online, they chew through your time and patience, trying to stiff you out of a few quid for buying the wrong sort of train ticket or having your coffee after 10am (which doesn’t count as “breakfast budget”).

The reality is that universities disrespect their casualised staff. Whether they call us temps, adjuncts, auxiliaries, associates, guests or visitors, one thing remains consistent: they deeply resent paying us and will use every trick in the book to delay and avoid doing so. 

Take the Scottish university that twice tried to pull the wool over my eyes by sending me remittance advice for money that had never made it to my bank account; it took me a further 16 months to resolve that. Then there’s the Finnish university that changed its payments policy between my doing the work and the payment’s due date. After the installation of a new finance system that lacked any process for overseas professors, my payment – indeed, my very existence – simply evaporated. Chasing the money turned into a hellish time-sink that lasted a whole year.

University administrators obtain safety in numbers by deflecting enquiries and complaints among themselves until those who have the temerity to seek payment tire and give up. It required somewhere between 15 and 20 emails or phone calls (I lost count) to locate the “person responsible for my claim” at one grand old Yorkshire university. After submitting the same form for a PhD examination fee three times to another institution, I realised that spending any more of my time on such a thankless task would be a sunk-cost write-off.

And it isn’t just me. A middling London university insisted that a lecturer I know fill out seven pages of forms and post her passport as “proof of right to work”. For two hours of teaching! She refused – and she was right to. Posting a passport (or a high-quality scan) is an invitation to identity theft; proof of residency can be obtained from notaries or an old passport instead.

The administrators eventually agreed to meet her outside the lecture room to check her passport, but they never showed up. She was then bullied to use an online “payments portal” that required more hours of registration and entering personal information. It was so complex that they “required” her to complete a two-hour online training course before being “approved” for payment. The Moodle system delivering that course was broken and required registration as a student on a special course. The punchline: she was already registered at that institution as a PhD student.

My advice to casual workers is to avoid universities’ internal systems entirely if possible and take a one-off payment as a “guest lecturer” or similar. It is better to do this many times and deal with your own tax liabilities than get enmeshed in their nightmares of abortive software engineering. If you insist, the administrators will always capitulate. They will make an allowance “just this time”, but in future you must use “their system”. Next time, just refuse again.

Another tip is to signal your intention – and follow up on it – to invoice for all administrative time you spend filing their paperwork and wrestling with their online “systems”. Make sure you invoice at your highest rate because doing admin is neither enjoyable nor conducive to your academic growth.

Also, push back when institutions say things like “we pay all our adjuncts at quarterly periods”. This might mean you don’t get paid for three months: that’s a lot of interest they’re keeping by holding on to your money. Set firm payment dates in your correspondence, which should be worded to obtain contractual status. Thirty days is not unreasonable. Add penalties for late payment. Follow these up, even if they are small. Every time you send a letter or email, charge a small fee, as all good solicitors and other professionals do.

I’ve decided that in cases where universities fail to pay me, I’m going to publicly ask the students to have a whip-round and see if they can stump up for at least my train fare. If there’s one currency universities can be guaranteed to take very good care of, it’s reputation. That’s why, if things don’t improve, my future articles will also name and shame those who deserve it.

Andy Farnell is a visiting and associate professor in signals, systems and cybersecurity at a range of European universities.


Print headline: Some money would be nice



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Reader's comments (3)

It is truly shocking to see administrative staff spoken about in such a manner. The divide is already big enough and the disrespect we receive from academics is frankly unacceptable. Surprised to see Times higher share something like this