Time to stop selling ourselves cheap

June 2, 1995

One does not have to be a Marxist to appreciate that one of the main marks of social valuation is money. For too long British academics have allowed themselves to be undervalued by undercharging for their expertise and their time. We all know that the past decade has seen our student loads increase massively at the same time as our institutions have pressed us to increase our external research funding and our published output.

Sadly, I see little hope of forcing our institutions to increase the basic pay rates for academics. However, we can, as school teachers did in the 1980s, stop volunteering for work outside the core requirements. Readers may be able to suggest other areas of self-exploitation; to begin the debate, I offer two.

First, we can decline to accept invitations to act as external examiners for universities which do not offer reasonable rates of reward. This month I examined a doctoral thesis for a Scottish university. It was of normal length, was not uncommonly badly written, and was not especially intellectually challenging. None the less it took me 17 hours to read it and a further two hours to compose my comments and complete the forms. To examine the candidate I left home at 7.30am and returned at 8.00pm. Even if one allows that some of that long day in the company of Trains-U-Hate or British Rail (or whatever it is called now) was idle pleasure, one might count it as five hours work. I thus spent 24 working hours on a job for which I was paid Pounds 85 before tax. That is Pounds 3.54 per hour, only slightly more than the rate for an untrained childminder and considerably less than I was paying the joiner who was putting up my shelves while I read the thesis. Even had I been able to read it in half the time (and with half the attention) the rate of pay would still have been an insult.

Of course universities vary considerably in what they offer. My own shop pays a decent rate for undergraduate external examining. What is required is pressure on those institutions that pay badly.

So long as we tell ourselves that external examining is good for the soul, that it keeps us in touch with what is being taught elsewhere, that the travel is its own reward, and that if we do not keep the system going the Government will force something worse on us (come to think of it, haven't they already done that with total quality assessment?), cheapskate institutions will have little incentive to increase their pay rates.

Let us all get into the habit of asking how much we will be paid and declining when the sum is less than we would have to pay someone to mind our children, do our gardening, or whatever else we will be giving up to take on the extra work.

A second area in which we allow ourselves to be exploited is in servicing the mass media. Anyone who works in a field which attracts public interest (and most will from time to time) will be used to newspaper, radio or television researchers who phone with requests that something very complicated be explained to them in five minutes to save them having to read the book. Even for long briefings - half an hour is not unusual - we are often offered no fee at all. I have been asked to drive 30 miles to a studio at the weekend or in the evening and been offered a fee of Pounds 30. Of course, it is flattering to be asked but we do ourselves no service if we allow such flattery to persuade us to work - for that is what we are doing - for no or little rewards.

There are, of course, exceptions. It is ironic, given the low opinion of them held by most academics, that the tabloid newspapers are the best payers in town. There are drawbacks, of course, and not just the obvious damage to one's professional standing of appearing in the Soaraway Sun. Most tabloids commission more than they will use and there is a good chance that the painfully hacked out 1,000 words will be spiked but they pay for what they commission, not for what they print. When they buy souls, they pay top whack.

One does have to get used to some junior sub-editor butchering one's prose but at least those devils pay a good price for such insults. Some BBC programmes have a budget which allows reasonable rates of pay. Most offer peanuts and many add insult to exploitation by refusing to credit the many academic experts that have been consulted in the making of programmes.

In a more leisurely climate we could view such work as a worthwhile contribution to the general good and reason that we are doing it in slack time already paid for by our main employers. By driving down the unit of resource and using regular evaluations of research and teaching to force us to work ever harder, the Government has freed us from such obligations. We may not be willing or able to use industrial action to increase our basic pay but we can insist that we be properly rewarded for work outside our basic obligations.

Steve Bruce is professor of sociology at the University of Aberdeen.

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