Blogconfidential: Worth the paper it's written on

Each week, Dr Margot Feelbetter poses a dilemma and offers advice for readers to respond to online. This week: Worth the paper it's written on

October 28, 2010

I have worked at my university for 11 years. As I have only a master's degree, two years ago my head of department suggested that I do a taught doctorate in education, part-time. I agreed on the basis that I would undertake this in my own time but the fees would be paid by our department.

All was going well until a new business manager was appointed six months ago and my old head left for the US and was not replaced. I belatedly (very belatedly) received a bill from central accounts for my past two years of fees.

I thought this was a mistake. But when I looked into it, I was told that our new business manager had "discovered that there had been an oversight". Last week, I received a second request for the money, and with it the threat of legal action if I did not pay.

I did not sign anything about the deal by which the department would pay my fees, and so there was nothing in writing that I can use in my defence. I am totally furious.

My former head is abroad and is not replying to emails. As ever, especially in this climate of cuts, kicking up a fuss will get me singled out - but is this any way to treat loyalty and an entrepreneurial spirit? On my relatively poor salary, the fees are way beyond my means. I also have to make maintenance payments relating to my divorce and a daughter who has just started university.

There is a clear moral to this story - always get things in writing. A paper trail could have helped you here, although it is certainly unfortunate that the changes in staff intersect with your doctoral studies.

You need to meet with the business manager and explain in a dignified way why you feel the bills are unfair. Make sure that your manner is not confrontational; explain your successes and stand by the assurances. You may need to make compromises or work towards a deal that suits all.

In addition, you should see what your union has to say - although I doubt that it will be able to solve your problem. The union has gone very, very quiet lately, and in this period of austerity and cuts it is performing lamentably.

Try to find out whether anyone else in your department has had similar commitments and whether they have been honoured. It is remarkable how often there is a great deal of flexibility afforded some individuals but not others.

Ultimately, you may be best off reaching a compromise and paying back the sum over the longer term. The doctorate will be good for your career in the long run.

It sounds like your business manager is a little too sharp, but then the point of that role is to make money. It's funny how business managers often do not conform to many management concepts that are otherwise considered standard practice, such as motivation, learning cultures and learning organisations...Whoops, sorry, it is a university we are talking about.

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