How long will goodwill in academia last?

Three professors give their views on the difficulties of taking on tasks that are necessary but undervalued

July 7, 2016
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Source: Alamy

It is often observed that goodwill and reciprocity is the grease without which the wheels of academe would not turn. But in an era of hyper-competition in research and teaching, the time and funding spent on acts of “academic citizenship”, such as reviewing, external marking and viva examining, are likely to come under ever greater scrutiny from academics and administrators alike.

Here, two academics set out different manifestations of the perceived problem. One contributor is irked by the increasingly frequent requirement for him to pay the upfront costs of academic trips out of his own pocket. Another despairs at the ever-increasing amount of time it takes hard-pressed and largely unpaid reviewers to read his manuscripts.

Meanwhile, a third contributor sets out the amount of time and effort she spends examining doctoral candidates, and suggests that it is time universities paid a market rate for such work. Traditionalists will no doubt baulk at the suggestion, but if it is true that academic goodwill is being squeezed like never before, might hard cash be the only remedy?

‘Now, it appears, I have to pay – at least up front – for the privilege of doing my job’

Looking back over 25 years as an academic, I recall a time when there was one similarity between all universities with regard to funding external work: the operation of goodwill.

Academics are more than the sum of what they do for their own institutions, and universities are interdependent. They make continuing demands on one another for external examiners, assessors, advisers and collaborators – and, increasingly, this work is international. Academics often undertake it for little or no reward, having spent evenings and weekends reading material and preparing reports. Travel and accommodation are rarely luxurious, and while some universities will insist on arranging it for you, many require you to make your own arrangements. Now, it appears, I have to pay – at least up front – for the privilege of doing my job.

In the past, any legitimate activities that required funding – external examining, visiting positions, editorships, attending meetings, delivering papers or sitting on important external bodies, such as research excellence framework panels – would be paid for by my university on the understanding that it would receive the money back once I had been reimbursed by whoever invited me. Not now. Unless I am being sent by my university, the upfront financial burden is mine. Nevertheless, the university is quick to gather information about my external activities so it can include them in its REF submission on research environment.

Here is one example. I worked as a visiting professor at a university in Hong Kong that would not arrange my travel in advance and would not reimburse me until after my visit. I hate to eschew opportunities to work in places such as Hong Kong, from where I can make short visits at little expense to other universities in the region. The benefits to my own university are also tangible, in terms of enabling me to entice full fee-paying international PhD students from Taiwan and mainland China. But I could not fund this trip out of my salary; it required a travel allowance from a publisher, operated through a private limited company.

Another example dates from several years ago, when I was prevented from reclaiming fuel or taxi fare for travel across the city where I worked to deliver a lecture in a local National Health Service facility, with which we were contracted to deliver a programme. Apparently I should have used public transport – despite the fact that a university lecture I was obliged to give ended only five minutes before the NHS lecture was due to start. The senior NHS executive who had to collect me in his car questioned whether my employers realised the impression this created in the eyes of their most important local partner.

There can be little objection to financial probity and a limit on budgets. But it fails to impress those who formulate the financial regulations of multimillion-pound universities that the financial risk and the interim cost of much academic work is borne by people on relatively low salaries.

I suspect that these decisions are made not by our academic leaders but by administrators, whose job now seems to be to make rules and impose them with force. Their perspective on academic life is defined by our purchase orders for trains, planes and hotels; they fail to see that our “flexible” working hours leave few free evening and weekends.

I am not a basher of professional and support staff. I have more faith in many of my long-standing administrative colleagues than in some of the senior academics I have worked with. Administrators are the backbone of a university, curating the network that ensures communication and coordination.

However, in most universities, the administrative tail is now wagging the academic dog. Goodwill is being hunted to extinction, and its eventual demise will have a detrimental effect on staff, students and administrators alike.

Roger Watson is professor of nursing at the University of Hull.

Team of men push-starting race car

In many cases, a thorough overhaul of manuscript flow, referee assignment and monitoring is required

Quite recently, after an email or two, I rang a journal to ask what was happening to a manuscript of mine, whose receipt had been acknowledged eight months before. After an unsuccessful attempt to track it down while I was on the phone, they promised to get back to me (did I detect a nervous edge?). It turned out that the second referee had recently changed jobs and “probably” needed another reminder. It was clear that without my intervention nothing would have happened for a long time.

This tale doubtless has a familiar ring. The tiresome wait for a verdict on a submitted manuscript results from a combination of different types of time. There is the “process time” required to log and distribute for assessment the material received, and then to turn referees’ reports into editorial judgements, including suggestions for revision. There is “assessment time”: the time it actually takes to read and judge a manuscript. This varies widely, of course, but never makes up more than a tiny fraction of the whole waiting time: perhaps just a couple of hours within those endless months. Much more significant is what we might call “getting round to it” time. This is the time it takes for referees to “find” the time to read and judge the manuscript alongside all their other commitments.

A key cause of delays across all these phases is an extensive reliance on voluntary work by members of the academic community – even if it is rewarded with a tiny publisher’s payment. Both the availability of such “voluntary” time and the willingness to give it are being squeezed, so it’s no surprise that activities which depend on it are slowed down still further.

As a former journal editor, I know the difficulty of persuading people to act as referees. Even when they agree, the “getting round to it” factor kicks in with a vengeance. Getting reports back within anything like the deadline indicated is often hard. Meanwhile, the number of manuscripts being submitted is growing, testing the efficiency of publishers and journals with tight systems, let alone those with slacker ones.

Many journals have at least successfully sought to close the gap between acceptance and publication by “online first” arrangements (a phrase fast losing its definitional edge in a largely online sphere). Yet, despite digital processing and e-publishing options, book production still tends to work at its own traditional rhythms, agricultural in their seasonal progression.

It’s a good thing that journals and publishers have started to discuss these issues more openly, including at conferences. In many cases, a thorough overhaul of manuscript flow, referee assignment and monitoring is required. Delays and build-ups need prompter recognition and corrective action against firmer target dates.

However, procedural weaknesses are only part of the problem. At the heart of the malaise is the way that academics now take an increasingly strategic approach to setting time costs against the achievement of prioritised personal goals (driven as much by anxiety as by ambition). This tendency is slowly undercutting peer review far more effectively than any debates about its possible limitations in principle.

John Corner is visiting professor in communication studies at the University of Leeds.

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‘Whichever way the figures are cut, academics are getting way less than the minimum wage in most cases’

Over the past two years, I have externally examined seven PhD theses and one MRes dissertation. Discussion with colleagues suggests that this is not unusual in my discipline – languages education. Often the work is enjoyable. There is the opportunity to get up to date with the literature and theoretical developments in different areas of the field. Meeting the candidates at the viva can be energising and thought-provoking, and catching up with colleagues can lead to interesting and useful conversations.

But there is no getting away from the fact that external examining takes huge amounts of time. First, there is the seemingly endless negotiation over the dates of the examination, and the associated form-filling. Then the thesis must be read. Most are about 80,000 words and require at least a day and a half of concentrated effort. After this, a report is written and submitted. Next, you have to travel to the viva, which may require an overnight stay. And while the examiners’ joint report should be the responsibility of the internal examiner, it is often left to the external to draft.

In successful cases, the job ends there – having taken up about three days. In unsuccessful ones, you then have to read a resubmitted thesis and carry out further negotiations about corrections, or even re-examine the thesis. One recent case has already taken me five days.

It astonishes me, therefore, that external examiners are paid so little. Given current rates of pay for consultancy of between £250 and £500 a day, we might expect it to earn a fee of between £750 and £1,500. But no institution gets anywhere near this amount. A survey of the rates paid by the institutions at which colleagues and I have examined since 2013 indicates that most universities, including many Russell Group members, pay less than £200. The highest payer I know of, the Open University, offers £420, while the lowest, Durham University, values its external examiners’ time at a mere £80 (my own institution, the University of Stirling, pays £300: an amount which caused a recent examiner a good deal of excitement). Such lowly fees are not even necessarily paid promptly: one colleague who submitted his invoice in June was told that it could not be paid until October.

These figures seem even more extraordinary considering how much PhD study costs. Overseas candidates can often pay upwards of £36,000. The examiner, who carries a huge burden of responsibility for the success of the thesis and who often adds value to it through required corrections, can receive less than 1 per cent of that. Whichever way the figures are cut, academics are getting way less than the minimum wage in most cases.

For colleagues called upon every year or so to carry out a doctoral examination, the intellectual rewards might be regarded as sufficient, with the payment an added bonus. However, in a field where doctoral study is common and where examiners are in limited supply, resentment builds up. The lunch or dinner at the institution’s expense is welcome, but does not compensate for the effort required – especially when, as in one case, it amounts to no more than a positively insulting Twix.

Of course, academics could simply refuse to externally examine theses. But how would we then attract colleagues to examine our own candidates? Institutions can (and do) argue that examining theses is part of the professional life of an academic, alongside other acts of “citizenship”. They consider themselves to be in reciprocal arrangements and expect payment, therefore, to be seen as a token perquisite. However, this argument does not account for there being such a difference in payment rates between institutions. Neither does it account for why some colleagues are paid by their own institution to carry out internal examiner duties, while most are not.

For the past few years, academics have been locked into bitter negotiations with universities over terms and conditions. The issue of pay for PhD examining has not, as far as I am aware, been part of the discussion. Yet PhD examining is work. What is more, it is work that is recognised neither in workload allocations nor in payment. It could be argued, therefore, that universities are getting “free” hours from other institutions’ staff.

As demand for doctoral study continues to rise, it is time for examining work to be recognised and rewarded. I would like to suggest that a fixed fee is set, perhaps negotiated between the unions and universities. To me, a figure equivalent to about 2 per cent of the fees paid by an international student does not seem unreasonable. Or perhaps a bit more?

Fiona Copland is professor of TESOL at the University of Stirling.


Print headline: Goodwill hunting

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Reader's comments (2)

All of the points made are somewhat taken for granted by academics (I would presume) but it is interesting to see a few "heads above the parapet". The increasing central control and micro-management mean that this is all too rare today. Some things have certainly got worse over the 24 years of my career but we still have more freedom than most employees for now...
Well done for highlighting the outrageous issue of external examiners fees for PhD. Just because it is standard practice across the sector (the usual response) does not make it acceptable - it makes it an exploitative cartel. We need to persuade our own institutions to change, and then use this as leverage when asked to examine PhDs at other institutions.