Lucrative fields pull in experts

January 6, 2006

The lure of consultancy could influence specialism, reports Jessica Shepherd

Consultancy work is becoming so commonplace in academic life that it could be influencing subject specialisms adopted by lecturers, one business expert has claimed.

According to Des Dearlove, who has written about the increasingly commercial outlook of university business schools, academics in the UK are starting to veer towards fields where consultancy work is most in demand.

Sociologists, for example, may be more likely to specialise in organisational behaviour because of the salary boost for advising public and private companies. Economists meanwhile are more interested in becoming "strategy" experts.

Mr Dearlove, a regular speaker at university management schools, said that consultancy work was an increasingly prominent part of academic life - and was not confined just to business schools.

He said: "Consulting is the up-and-coming money-making opportunity for academics. British academics have now broken through some of the upper echelons of salary structures in higher education by doing consultancy.

"Professors at the very top business schools can earn six-figure sums from consulting to the corporate world. Other academics can easily double their annual salaries. And there are other opportunities, too. For example, a number of academics consult to television series and film companies. This trend will grow."

He added: "I wouldn't be surprised if people who are sociologists or economists in traditional departments are now more likely to pick up those types of (consultancy-friendly) fields."

Yet despite the growth in consultancy work, academics who lend their expertise may still be criticised by colleagues. Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University Management School, said: "I have never had any criticism about the consultancy work I do, but I have heard that some academics face adversity from their colleagues. They might be accused of not doing enough research, for example.

"We have to bear in mind that universities were not even thinking about consultancy work ten years ago. Consulting is still not yet a core value in most British universities."

The Times Higher 's survey of consultancy revenue in universities meanwhile has highlighted a lack of sector-wide rules on how consultancy work should be defined or regulated.

Several institutions use their own definitions, while their neighbours lump consultancy income in with other university revenue.

Some institutions ask their academics to go through a central office when arranging consultancy work. Imperial College London, for example, has established IC Consultants, a wholly owned subsidiary company that manages academic consultancy contracts.

Others, such as Cranfield University, accept that staff will do private consultancy work in their own time.

Frank Hartley, vice-chancellor of Cranfield, said: "We are happy for staff to undertake private consultancy so long as there is no conflict of interest. "We don't know how much staff earn though private consultancy - that is between them and the Inland Revenue."

But Philip Graham, executive director of the Association for University and Research Links, said that consultancy should not be subjected to sector-wide regulations.

He said: "All we can do is give guidelines of good practice when it comes to consultancy. We can advise that a higher education institution has a strategy and gives its academics private indemnity insurance among other things. We cannot dictate what it should do."

Working with real problems in the real world

Stuart Sanderson has done consultancy work for some of the biggest - and smallest - firms in the UK.

The associate dean of Bradford University's School of Management reckons that at his "consultancy peak" ten years ago, he could boost his salary by 50 per cent in a month.

His clients have included: HBOS, the bank created by the merger of Halifax Building Society and the Bank of Scotland; BP; Hewlett Packard; and firms with a workforce of just two or three.

And with his retirement less than 12 months away, the applied strategic management professor said he was packing in as much consultancy as he could.

He said: "I get as much out of consultancy as the client does. I work with real problems in the real world.

"My students get at worst anecdotes and at best evidence about how industry works from my experiences.

"It's also been another form of research and has given me excellent contacts that have proved useful when it comes to students' placements and organising speakers to visit the university.

"I see it as breaking down the walls between academe and businesses as well. A lot of small businesses see business schools as foreboding places that only deal with blue chip firms. I hope I have helped to change that."

Most of Professor Sanderson's consultancy work ranges from planning with a management board how a company can reach its full potential, to finding a new board of directors.

"It's absolutely not all about money. I've done a lot of pro bono work for charities. But I must say that I've also had better summer holidays and a higher quality lifestyle because of my consultancy work."

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