Why I Am Saying No To Some Universities

piggy bank and coinsIn the last few weeks I have been asked to deliver seminars at the universities of York and Leicester. I had the time and would have enjoyed the experiences. Also, in both cases, the people inviting me were my friends. So why did I say ‘no’?

I was asked to work for nothing.

Both universities offered to pay my travel expenses. This has been standard practice for many years, designed to ensure that academics would not be out of pocket when visiting another institution. Visiting academics don’t need to be paid by their host institution because they are already drawing a good salary from their own institution.

Independent researchers are not drawing a salary and often don’t earn a great deal. I have been open about my income. As I thought about the invitations from York and Leicester, it occurred to me that universities were probably open about their income, too. So I did some research and found that, although often buried deep within layers of web pages, they do indeed publish their financial statements.

In 2013/14, the income of the University of York was £305.4m and its expenditure was £297.2m. It has total net assets of £243.8m, and a retained surplus of £10.5m.

In the same financial year, the income of the University of Leicester was £286.7m and its expenditure was £279.2m. It has total net assets of £172.6m, and a retained surplus of £7.6m.

Clearly universities must exercise sound financial stewardship. They have staff to pay and to provide pensions for, and I believe that university staff work hard and should be paid appropriately. There are buildings to be maintained and refurbished, equipment costs, perhaps debts to service, and so on. But these are wealthy institutions with an annual surplus of millions of pounds. Yet, while they evidently want my expertise, they won’t pay me a couple of hundred.

I found it embarrassing to refuse my friends’ requests. In both cases they said they had no budget to pay visiting scholars. Clearly universities hold on tight to their cash. But in doing so, they minimise the types of expertise available to their students. Is that a sensible educational strategy?

In recent weeks, I have been cheerfully paid a sensible fee for work at Staffordshire University, which is significantly less wealthy than York or Leicester (income: £118.4m, expenditure: £116m, net assets £44.2m, surplus £3.6m). I have also been paid by Swansea University (income £205.8m, expenditure £182.3m, net assets £156.5m, surplus £7.2m). And I am in discussions with Birmingham City University, who said my fee was what they were expecting (income: £173.8m, expenditure £153.6m, net assets £219.9m, surplus £23.2m).

Although this is not any kind of a representative sample, I used my researcher’s eye to try to discern a pattern. York is a Russell Group university; Leicester and Swansea were founded around the same time in the early 1920s; Staffordshire and Birmingham City are post-92. So there is no apparent consistency here.

I wonder what prospective students might think. Would you like to go to a university that will encourage you to learn from a wide variety of expert people? Or would you prefer one that will restrict you to learning from its own faculty and some volunteers?

9 thoughts on “Why I Am Saying No To Some Universities

  1. Thank you for rejecting this! As a grad student I am increasingly dismayed by the idea that working for free is something I should be doing. I regularly get emails from people telling me of an “exciting opportunity” to teach for free. Many of my friends (PhD students at Oxford) are doing this because they feel they need the teaching experience. Therefore these companies get away with not paying their teachers. This has to stop. Highly qualified individuals should get paid for their work.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting that it’s so prevalent among doctoral students as well as authors and indie researchers. I agree with you, people should get paid for the work they do, particularly when they’re highly qualified. I can see the point of exchanging work for, say, the opportunity to learn a new skill, rather than for money, but working for nothing at all – for rich institutions – is just not acceptable.


    • We don’t get plumbing or electrical expertise for free. Plumbers don’t get offered “experience or exposure” instead of a fee. Also, quite apart from travel expenses, people should be paid for the hours they use travelling and the fact that they cannot do other paid work during this time.


  3. This is a topic that makes me so angry.

    Let me provide a little context, I grew up on a council estate with a father who was a lorry driver (later sales rep) and a mother who was a care assistant. I left school and worked in a local slaughterhouse and then did various other things before ending up in the academy. My earlier experience taught me that work involves payment – it *always* involves payment or it is something else – maybe charity.

    When I entered the academy, I got a lot of advice that you had to do stuff for free for “exposure” or to build networks. I decided early on that this didn’t sound right and would stick to what I know and I wouldn’t do a lick without being paid *and I never have*. People tell you that wanting to paid for your efforts will somehow damage your career, I’ve never come across it. All that has happened is that a lot of parasites and moochers leave me along.

    Now the thing about this policy is its amazing how often projects or other invite that have no money suddenly and amazingly do have money when pressed. The other amazing thing is how the academy teaches people that to discuss or *ask* for money is some shameful thing – so people often look at you like you have stuck a gun in their face when you ask.

    The reason I’m so hot on this is that when you do a job for free – you don’t know rob yourself of some income today, you rob your future self of maybe many multiples of income in investments, savings and pensions – it’s not worth it.

    If you read this and say “well my area of the academy cannot afford to pay” – get out, get out now – why do you want to give your valuable labour away for free?


    • Charles, thank you so much for your comment, and your contribution – both to this discussion and to what I am realising is a kind of underground campaign! I hope that making our positions public will encourage others to take a similar stand.


  4. First of all: great post Helen, thank you for sharing it. I’ve had a number of thoughts running through my head since I read it earlier today, and I’ve finally got to a computer to comment. Hope these aren’t too scattershot! 🙂

    You raise a really good point with your examples that institutions actually do have money that is available! Now, of course, it could be true that the departments etc within institutions do not have money, because of the way that they are structured. This is a big problem I think, particularly in areas like researcher development and especially since the end of Roberts Funding. It was nice during the years of plenty, but when the funding stopped it was not replaced by local sources and with austerity politics running everywhere as well, I can “get” why people would use any excuse they can not to pay people, or to just offer expenses.

    But they really are just excuses: “we don’t have any money, but can you come and do it anyway?” If you can’t afford to pay someone who charges a fee to provide a service then I guess they can’t come and provide the service. I mean… That’s basic.

    When I started as a freelancer, towards the end of 2008, a colleague told me: figure out how much you’re worth. Remember that pitching yourself low means that clients will always expect you to cost less – and that this could have a knock-on effect for how much they’re willing to pay both you AND everyone else.

    In your post we’re not just talking low, we’re talking free! I’ve done a few things for free or for low over the last seven years. And I think if there is an element of learning or skills sharing that could be fine. But I am really struggling to think of one of those occasions where I didn’t leave the event or experience with a bit of a bad taste in my mouth. Not because “I wasn’t getting paid” but usually because the client or the institution would then use the opportunity to then try to get a little bit more.

    “Can you come along to this two hour panel Q&A…and while you’re here can you think of and run an icebreaker to start it off?”


    • Oh yes, I’ve been in that movie too. An academic I spoke to this week told me there is usually a mechanism for payment, but academics may have to fight their way through a few layers of bureaucracy to get to it, so ‘we have no budget’ may mean ‘I don’t know how to get the money and I can’t be bothered/am too busy to find out’. I think the answer is for everyone with expertise to refuse to work for nothing for rich organisations. And the more we post, tweet, and discuss this, both online and off, the closer we’ll get to everyone with expertise being paid for their work.


  5. Pingback: Small Business Resources for Academic Professionals | ScholarStudio Blog: A Resource for Graduate Writers and Advisors

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