Pounds 50,000 for your thoughts

February 25, 2000

Should academics be allowed to pursue consultancy work for personal profit? As the High Court considers the case of Nottingham vs Fishel, Phil Baty surveys universities' contradictory guidelines, while Maggie Greatorex reports on lecturers whose extra income is all above board.

The sector waits with bated breath for the High Court to deliver judgement on the row between Nottingham University and Simon Fishel. Fishel, the in vitro fertilisation pioneer who in 1997 was already on a Pounds 100,000-plus salary from Nottingham, stands accused of engaging in "profit-making activities" in breach of his contract. He says he had the full approval of his bosses, but Nottingham claims he owes the university Pounds 400,000 earned through giving private IVF treatments in foreign clinics, on university time.

Alongside the Fishel case comes the mounting furore at Oxford University following the suspension of zoology professor Roy Anderson. A university investigation into Anderson is understood to have been widened to cover his business affairs. Anderson is a director of International Biomedical and Health Sciences Consortium, a biomedical consultancy at the Oxford Science Park. Such a commercial role may compromise Wellcome Trust rules.

The controversies have focused minds. They raise fundamental questions about academics' rights to the proceeds of private consultancy work and intellectual property and threaten to redefine the already fine line between an academic's university work and lucrative extracurricular activity.

Following the Bett report into academic pay, it is clear that universities are struggling to pay their top academics enough to stop the brain drain. Sanctioned moonlighting has become a recruitment incentive. And with ministers actively encouraging marriages between the academic community and the business world and expecting to see more applied research in all disciplines, the issue has become acute.

Where do you draw the line? What becomes a conflict of interest? How much outside work is too much? There are few agreed answers. The questions themselves are exercising civil servants at the Department of Trade and Industry, who are struggling to draft a code of practice on intellectual property and extramural activities as part of the forthcoming research, technology and innovation white paper.

The only thing that is clear is that this is a murky area. The Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals has produced no guidelines covering how much consultancy work an academic may undertake. Nor has the Universities and Colleges Employers Association. "There is no national advice whatsoever," says Declan Leyden, assistant director of the UCEA. "The only thing agreed nationally is academic pay. Any conditions of service are determined by each university locally." And that is with good reason, he believes.

"There is not one standard that we can say everyone must adhere to," he says. "There cannot be just one rule." There is not even any real clarity about how much extracurricular activity is actually going on. What is known reveals a multitude of different practices.

The Bett report found that 8 per cent of lecturers and one in five professors in old universities made extra money from work for other employers on top of their academic salaries. In new universities, about 7 or 8 per cent of all academic staff received additional earnings, which averaged Pounds 1,000 a year for junior grades, increasing to Pounds 4,000 for professors.

Of course, the income is much higher for full-time researchers, with not just lecture notes and external examining services to sell, but ideas. And higher again for doctors and medical researchers, who enjoy National Health Service cash payments for hospital work undertaken on top of lecturing and academic research. How much higher no one knows, and what we think we know is likely to be wrong. As the Bett report said: "These figures are likely to be underestimates due to the relatively poor data returned by universities and colleges in respect of such earnings."

Oxford is one of the universities that has recently tried to write some rules for the game by drawing up a code of conduct. Oxford is quick to remind staff - in the first entry on its list of examples of conflict of interest - that "the use of the university's research or administrative facilities to pursue personal business, commercial or consulting activities" could be problematic.

Oxford also warns of the risks of holding financial interests in an external enterprise linked to an academic's research, "for example, paid consultancies, paid service on a board of directors, or royalty income from the enterprise".

"It is very much for the employer and the employee to decide what is of mutual benefit and how to stop the relationship going too far in one direction or the other," Leyden says. "It is down to what an institution wants from an individual."

The rules can come down to how badly a university needs to attract and keep staff. Cambridge University vice-chancellor Alec Broers recently told the House of Commons science and technology select committee of his frustration at not being able to pay enough to attract big-name researchers from industry. "Pay is a problem," he said. "With respect to pay and academics, this country is just non-competitive, full stop. Americans laugh at us; they just laugh at us."

Cambridge has a basic fixed professorial salary of about Pounds 41,000, with small discretionary payments for about 30 of its 200 professors. Broers says this should be doubled. He also told the select committee that allowing outside earnings is an important part of any pay package. "A lot of them can consult and earn extra money that way," he said.

THE WORLD OUTSIDE AND WHAT IT'S WORTH

The retirement this year of Richard Neave after 41 years as artist in medicine at Manchester University has prompted the first full evaluation of his unit's work.

Neave has spent long hours reconstructing faces for the police and for hospitals as well as making some dramatic archaeological revelations. These include a reconstruction for the Greek government of the face of Philip II of Macedonia from a skull and the discovery last year that Scottish king Robert Bruce, was "an ugly devil who had leprosy".

All income he generates from such consultancy feeds into a central purse. The way the work has grown, he says, is "a tribute to the imagination of people who have allowed me to carry on doing something in a rather one-off way with enough moral and financial support to let us find other finance".

Simon Hallsworth, a criminal sociologist at London Guildhall University, is quite clear why he needs to attract outside consultancies with the likes of Tower Hamlets council, the Metropolitan Police and the Home Office.

Tower Hamlets, the East London borough that surrounds his university, is one of the poorest and most racially diverse in Britain. "It provides me with the best laboratory I could have," he says. For a criminologist, the neighbourhood that spawned the Black Shirts in the 1930s and the Kray twins in the 1950s is paradise. Any income he generates goes to LGU.

LGU, unlike older, richer universities, has no tradition of research and no wealth to finance it. "If I want to do research, if I want to be freed from some of the teaching timetable, then I have to earn it," Hallsworth says.

Hallsworth worked with Tower Hamlets on its criminal justice audit and is talking to the Home Office about making that audit a model for other councils. MG.

In the lucrative world of big business, someone with business school qualifications could be earning double or triple a university salary. The business school professor will argue that consultancy work is therefore an essential academic perk. It also gives him the "real- world" experience so desired by ministers.

At the Judge Institute of Management Studies at Cambridge University, business school staff are allowed about one day a week for private consultancy work from which they keep any income. At the fledgling Said Business School at Oxford University, academics are normally allowed about 30 days a year for private consultancy. But in an effort to win more work for the university from the star academics, the Said school offers a Pounds 15,000 supplement, on top of the basic Pounds 40,000 professorial salary, if academics forsake half their private days and increase their teaching. PB.

The going rate?

External examining: Pounds 155 a day for undergraduate courses, rising to Pounds 415 for PhD work. Consultancy: Pounds 350 to Pounds 1,500 a day.

Outside lecture series: Pounds 1,000 for series of ten.

Source: AUT

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