University Bureaucracy Is Driving Me Mad!!!

I understand that where there are institutions, there must also be bureaucracy. I know that when I work with a new university, I need to fill in a New Supplier Form for their records, and someone will have to raise a purchase order before I can get paid. This is how most universities work. The initial form-filling can be a bit of a pain, and it can take a while to get set up on the system, but once that’s done, the admin is usually straightforward. I do a job, a purchase order arrives in my inbox, I create an invoice for the specified amount bearing the purchase order number, email it off, then some time later the money appears in my bank account.

That kind of administrative overhead seems reasonable and proportionate for the kind of work I do and the amounts I charge. Most of my invoices are in three figures or the small end of four. However, some universities have a massive administrative overhead for new suppliers. I’ve just come across one at the other end of a very long spectrum. Nameless University requires me to do the following:

  1. Complete a New Supplier Form
  2. Complete a Vendor Appraisal Questionnaire
  3. Read and understand their Terms and Conditions for Purchase
  4. Complete a Supplier Engagement Tool online

The New Supplier Form is on a spreadsheet and has 22 questions. The Vendor Appraisal Questionnaire is two pages of A4 and has several of the same questions that are on the New Supplier Form.

The Terms and Conditions for Purchase are 11 pages long. Being savvy in these matters, I skipped straight to the insurance section, where I found that they want me to hold £5m in public liability insurance and £1m in professional indemnity insurance. My own insurers, in whose interests it is to sell me as much insurance as possible, have told me that I only need £2m in public liability and £250,000 in professional indemnity for the kind of work I do. To raise my cover to the levels demanded by Nameless University would cost me more than I will earn from my work with them.

The online Supplier Engagement Tool was the icing on the cake. Sample question: ‘Is there someone in your organisation who is responsible for sustainability? To qualify, sustainability must form 50% or more of the person’s job role.’ Yes, there is someone in my organisation who is responsible for sustainability. It’s me. I make sure we buy recycled paper and compost our teabags. But is that 50% of my job role? Is it heck. For a start it only takes about one minute a week to ensure that my business is as sustainable as possible, and for a second thing, if I spent half my time on sustainability, I wouldn’t be able to earn a living.

Most of the questions in the Supplier Engagement Tool were irrelevant to me, so I ended up answering almost all of them with the ‘other, please specify’ option. At the end of the process I got a personalised action plan for my business. This turned out to be a pdf of a single page with my company name at the top and NOTHING ELSE AT ALL.

I said in an email to the person commissioning my work that Nameless University was by far the most bureaucratic I had come across (it is). That person forwarded my email to the Head of Procurement. The HoP wrote me a lengthy email saying, among other things, that it is ‘standard business practice’ to operate in this way for any contract over £1,000 in value. (As this is the first university which has done this to me, I’m not sure what the standard is here, let alone the business; even the local authorities I used to work with didn’t operate like this for costs under five figures.)

The HoP did acknowledge that there was duplication between the spreadsheet and the questionnaire, and said they are ‘looking to merge the documents into one in the future’ (a job that could be done in five minutes flat). The HoP also said that ‘insurances can be negotiated… with suppliers such as yourself’ – so why not put that in the Terms and Conditions of Purchase? Some suppliers will reach that point and conclude that they are ineligible. Bureaucracy is not only a nuisance, it can also exclude, which is unlikely to be in anyone’s best interests.

Apparently the Supplier Engagement Tool will enable Nameless University to ensure that all their suppliers ‘fully comply with the recently introduced Modern Slavery Act‘. I know I can drive myself hard at times, but I didn’t realise I was at risk of enslaving myself. More seriously, this Act is only applicable to businesses with a turnover above £36million. The UK Government evidently understands the need to keep red tape to a minimum for small and micro businesses; why can’t Nameless University get its head around this too?

Most galling of all, it will take me a couple of hours to jump through all their hoops. I’m debating whether to reply to the HoP asking who I should invoice for my time. What do you think? Is that a good way to make a point? Or is it a good way to shoot myself in the foot?

When A Contract Ends

finish lineI’m putting the finishing touches to the report of a research project that’s been running for the last 18 months. And then it’ll be over. Which is a bit sad, for a number of reasons.

First, the work is for a national organisation, but unusually that organisation is based close to where I live in the Midlands of England. So, unlike most, this job hasn’t involved a lot of travelling: much of the work has been done within half an hour’s drive of my office.

Second, I’ve been working with another researcher, a colleague I met for the first time on the day we went to be interviewed for this job. I liked him then and my respect and appreciation for him has grown throughout the project. He’s responsive, thoughtful, caring, creative, and generally a terrific collaborator. I will miss working with him.

Third, it’s been an interesting, complex project, evaluating a community-based advocacy service for older people with cancer. The work is multi-faceted and that makes it a real challenge to investigate it fully and come up with suitable recommendations for taking the work forward.

Fourth, it’s paid some of the bills. These kinds of longer-term contracts, that provide a basic level of income for a period of time, don’t come along so often but are invaluable for indie researchers.

Letting go of a project can be hard for anyone, but there are some specific areas of difficulty for indie researchers. Commissioners don’t think to get back in touch to tell us how our work is being used, and seem surprised if we email or phone to ask. We have very little say in how our work is disseminated, and sometimes it’s not disseminated at all, which can be really frustrating. And unlike our academic colleagues, we don’t have the requirement to publish that can keep the relationships formed during a project alive for months and years after completion.

So in many ways I’m sorry to see this contract end, but the pill is very thoroughly sugared by the new contract I landed earlier this month. Without that I think I’d be in deep mourning. But this time it really does feel as though, as one door is closing, another opens.

Back On The Indie Researcher Rollercoaster

rollercoasterI’ve written before about the indie researcher rollercoaster. I’ve been riding it again recently. The last few months have been quite tough. I’ve had one contract rolling along, and some bits and bobs of teaching work. I’ve also had:

  • The promise of ten days’ sub-contracted work in the second half of 2015, which turned into two days’ work at the very end of December, for which I still haven’t been paid.
  • An associate role with a national organisation, since last summer, that seemed likely to yield a fair bit of work but hasn’t yielded any yet (though I do have one whole day booked in for them in May).
  • The promise of almost full-time contract work from January to March of this year, which didn’t materialise at all due to staff sickness.

So overall I’ve been keeping my head above water, but only just. I have consistently been able to pay myself £1,000 per month, and had calculated that I would be able to carry on doing so while continuing to break even up to and including June. However, the rolling-along contract is about to end. I have some more bits and bobs of teaching work booked in over the next three months, but after the end of June I was going to fall off the edge of the work cliff into the cold deep workless sea.

On top of this, there were a number of unavoidable expenses looming: from essential repairs to my elderly and infirm car, to all my underwear developing holes at once. I was resigning myself to digging into my savings for the first time in many years, reasoning that if I’d saved for a rainy day, it was now, metaphorically speaking at least, about to throw it down.

Then last week there was one of those reversals for which the indie lifestyle is famous. A colleague and I went for an interview at a Russell Group university that wanted to commission some research – and we got the gig! Sensible budget (not so sensible timescale, but you can’t have everything) and the people were lovely.

So now I don’t need to dig into my savings, instead I can pay myself a little extra to cover the unavoidable expenses. Plus I don’t have to start worrying about work again until the summer. This is a huge relief – I have, quite literally, been sleeping easier.

Plus I landed another teaching client, and the more of those I can reel in the better. I’m working to build up my teaching because, although the work lasts for days rather than months, it’s more regular than research. If I can reach the point where I have a few days of teaching work in each month of the academic year, I’ll be able to stop chasing commissioned research altogether. Though the Teaching Excellence Framework is looming here in the UK, and I don’t know whether my input will help universities to manipulate the metrics successfully enough to make it worthwhile for them to use me. So while I can take a break from the rollercoaster for the next little while, I’m sure I’ll be riding again soon.

Costing A Research Project

 

currency-signs-33431_960_720Following on from my last post about funding, I thought it might be useful to explain a few things about how I cost a research project. There are two parts to this process: setting a day rate, and working out how long the project will take.

My day rate is flexible, depending on the nature of the commissioning or funding body and the size and nature of the project. For example, I will charge less for a small project for a local charity than for a large project for a Government department. I will charge less per day for a long project that offers months of financial security, or for a project where the application is not onerous. And I will always negotiate on rates – at least, up to a point.

When it comes to working out how long the project will take, I break it down into individual elements. Let’s say a national client tells me they want a three-month project to include a focused literature review, 20 interviews with key people, presentation of draft findings at a meeting in London, and a written report with an executive summary (and let’s say I agree this is a suitable approach to the work – which is not always the case). We will also need a project initiation meeting, and I’d need to build in time for correspondence and administration: my rule of thumb here is half a day per month.

The first thing I need to do is a quick check of the literature, as a ‘focused literature review’ takes different lengths of time depending on whether the key search terms yield three items or 300,000. If it’s the former, I start thinking more laterally about potential search terms. If there are lots of hits, I start thinking about how to narrow down the search: I usually start by restricting the date range on Google Scholar and then take it from there. I am always mindful that a client’s budget is limited, and that they are unlikely to want to fund six months of my time to review the literature in detail. In fact, I’m lucky if I get six days. So I need to come up with a search strategy that will work for quite a limited review – and it does no harm to point out to the client that I can only read, on average, 10 documents a day. (Of course the exact number depends on the length of each document, but I work on the basis of a 15-page average, i.e. 150 pages/day or 20 pages per hour (7.5 hours per working day) or one page every three minutes.)

Then I need to think about the interviews. If they’re with professionals, I can probably do them by phone or Skype; if with service users, they would need to be face-to-face. And if those service users are scattered around the country, there are huge implications for travel time and cost. Plus I need to factor in time for setting up the interviews, and rearranging the inevitable ones where I call or turn up and the person I’m due to interview isn’t there. I also need to have a first go at drafting the interview questions, to get a sense of how long the interviews themselves might be. That is impossible to predict entirely, as some people are much more talkative than others, but I have another rule of thumb: for a shorter set of questions (say, nine or fewer) I’ll schedule an interview every 45 minutes, for a longer set I’ll allow an hour per interview. (Unless I’m interviewing school teachers, who are ninja level question answerers, in which case I’ll allow 30 minutes however many questions I have.) Occasionally people are willing to talk for longer than 45-60 minutes but if I’ve got someone really chatty, I’ll start drawing their attention to that within the first 15-20 minutes of the interview to help us both to manage the time.

It’s also important to think about recording and, if necessary, transcription time – which is usually calculated at four hours for each hour of talk. Indie researchers often outsource transcription, to make it cheaper for clients, though you need to be sure the service you use will yield good quality transcripts.

Then I have to work out how long it will take me to code and analyse data (I reckon to code 10 interview transcripts per day, but then I’ve been doing it for a long time), draft reports, and prepare for meetings. So, assuming the interviews can be done by telephone, and the project will take three months, my time allocation for this fictional project might look something like:

  • Project initiation meeting in London (including preparation and travel) – one day
  • Focused literature review – six days
  • 20 telephone interviews (including set-up time etc) – four days
  • Data coding – two days
  • Data analysis – one day
  • Drafting report – two days
  • Preparing for presentation meeting – 0.5 day
  • Presentation meeting in London – one day
  • Finishing report and executive summary – one day
  • Correspondence and administration (0.5 day/month) – 1.5 days

That gives a total of 20 days. I multiply that by the day rate I’ve decided to offer this client, which produces a rate I can quote for the job.

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?

New Year’s resolution

moneyI think the time has come to declare that I will not do any more unpaid work for rich organisations.

This can be hard to call when you’re self-employed. Some unpaid work is necessary to gain paid work. Unpaid work can have real benefits, whether it’s working on a bid for a contract, making useful contacts through networking, or someone I’ve chatted with on Twitter deciding to buy my book. Every self-employed person needs to work on their business as well as in their business, and at times it can be difficult to separate ‘unpaid work’ from ‘essential marketing’.

Also, I’m not very good at saying ‘no’ to things which interest me. That’s where I need to improve.

‘Pay’ doesn’t always have to mean ‘money’. For example, I will swap some of my time and skills for, say, a free place at a conference I want to go to (though that would need to be a fully free place, i.e. including travel and accommodation). I do some unpaid work for the Third Sector Research Centre at the University of Birmingham in exchange for access to paywalled academic literature. And I will still collaborate on bids for contracts without expecting payment for my work on the bid, as long as the contract includes some paid work for me if the bid is successful.

I have been inspired in this respect, recently, by Charlotte Cooper. I knew of her work, then I heard her speak at the launch of The Para-Academic Handbook in December. Charlotte is also an indie researcher, and an activist, and a terrific speaker. And she is uncompromising about not working for rich organisations without pay. This made me realise that I’m a bit feeble. ‘Oh but they’re nice people… maybe it’ll help my career… anyway it would be fun…’ and there goes another day, week, or month of my life, spent giving away my skills and expertise to organisations that could well afford to pay.

Part of the problem is that I’m doing more academic-type work now. Academic employees are paid comfortable salaries and have the freedom to do things like work on the boards of academic journals as part of their academic role. Academic journals don’t expect to pay their board members, because they’re already academic employees earning comfortable salaries. Except now academic journals are reaching out to indie researchers – which is great; we have a lot to offer – but it’s an odd experience, being the only volunteer in a group of well-paid professionals, treated as a peer in all respects but the rather important one of remuneration. I also recognise that this is not the fault of any individual, or in any individual’s gift to fix. It’s a structural imbalance with historical roots. But I’m coming to realise that this won’t get rebalanced unless people like me start saying ‘no’.rock and hard place

Yet is there a rock and a hard place here? Do I need to demonstrate my value first? This is the question I keep coming up against – but Charlotte Cooper’s example is helping me a lot. And, as I’m a researcher, I decided to do some research.

The journal on whose board I currently sit is published by Taylor & Francis, which is part of the Informa Group, a very wealthy company which is listed on the Stock Exchange. In 2012 the Informa Group made operating profits of £350 million; in 2013 they paid out £114 million in dividends to shareholders. And I am working, for this phenomenally rich organisation, for no pay. Finding this out has helped to focus my mind. I plan to finish my term on the Board – I don’t pull out of commitments I’ve made – and, on the same basis, I will finish a couple of other pieces of work I’m currently doing, unpaid, for wealthy organisations. But after that I’ll stick to doing unpaid work for charities. Such as the UK’s Social Research Association (SRA), a registered charity, not for profit, on whose Board I sit. According to its annual accounts, the net income of the SRA in 2012-13 was £24,379. It’s organisations like this where I should be, and will be, giving my unpaid time and skills from now on.