Hang the expenses

In this age of austerity, delaying reimbursements owed to external examiners is inexcusable, opines Iain Stevenson

December 13, 2012

Credit: Ian Summers

Over the past year, I have examined a couple of doctorates, served on a number of examination boards as an external examiner and given several guest lectures and seminars. Such activities are among the most essential that academics undertake and, in the main, I find them enjoyable and fulfilling.

The pay is dreadful, of course, but none of us came into the academy dreaming of riches and many academics would probably be prepared to do this kind of work for little or no remuneration. However, travel is unavoidable, sometimes for considerable distances and often overnight or at times of day when railcards and discounts are not valid.

Then there is food. I am a diabetic so I have a pressing medical reason to eat at regular, prescribed times. But even hungry non-diabetic academics need a meal after a hard day's lecturing or examining. Put together, this can add up to significant expenses bills. At one point this year, the outstanding expenses owed to me ran well into four figures. I punctiliously provide all my details and submit full receipts and itemised claims under arcane headings but not once have my expenses claims - or, for that matter, my paltry examining fees - been paid either promptly or without quibble.

Excuses have been legion: "your claim was mislaid"; "a new person in accounts didn't know how to handle it"; "the head of department didn't sign the right box" and my favourite, "we lost it when we were moving" - not quite "the dog ate my homework" but close. In other cases, the blame was shifted to me. When claiming for a (substantial) rail fare, I was told I had submitted a till receipt rather than a cancelled ticket, which was not acceptable. When I (gently) pointed out that the automatic gates at the institution's train station retain the used portion of tickets and that perhaps the grandees of the university accounts department (if they used public transport, which I doubt) should know this, I was met with stony silence.

My usual practice is to wait for three or four weeks and, if the cash owed is not forthcoming, to send a reminder to the host department's administrator. They are invariably polite and concerned, often embarrassed, and assure me my payment will be issued "in the next run". But often it isn't. So another reminder is sent, this time to a head of department or dean. Cue more embarrassment, more delays before eventually it is paid: on average, between eight and 20 weeks after submission. No apology, no explanation, just late. I stress that this is my money that I have spent for the benefit of the debtor institution, on which it is earning interest and I am not. Nor, having spoken to colleagues, does my experience seem unusual. Across the sector, delayed payments must amount to millions of pounds a year.

I have a file of appointment letters I received from vice-chancellors on becoming an external examiner for them. Each stresses how much they value my services and how vital examining duties are for the success of their institutions. But if we are so valuable, why are they (or their directors of finance) so reluctant to pay for those services? The answer, I suspect, is that academic good nature and sense of responsibility is, not for the first time, being taken advantage of by finance departments, under instruction to delay payments as long as they can. Academics hate complaining (no, really!) and are embarrassed about money, so put up with what is a totally unacceptable situation. For many years, I was a senior publishing executive and if I had ever deployed such tactics with suppliers or authors, I would have been thoroughly (and rightly) reprimanded.

So what is the solution? For my part, if I am invited to examine, lecture or consult, I now decline if my previous experience of payment from that institution has been bad. I am also considering officially resigning from external examining at particular institutions and writing to their vice-chancellors to explain why.

Many of the institutions for which I have worked will know who they are and will, I trust, hang their heads in shame when they read this. But I would rather they cleaned up their acts and paid on time, particularly claims from younger colleagues who can ill afford to lay out large sums for meagre returns. Roles such as external examining are important but late or non-payment of expenses at a time when everything but salaries is increasing is unsustainable and wicked.

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