Scholarship can’t afford itself

This is not a detailed study in economics, but rather a view from inside the system. It’s occurred to me a few times, that as higher education (particularly in the US and UK) becomes increasingly commercialised and commoditised, there is pressure on academics to account for their time, and for it to be spent in revenue generating pursuits. These drivers come from Government, and also just the general post-recession context where every expenditure needs to be justified. I understand this and don’t think academics should be immune from the same pressures that society faces. But I have also felt that taken to its conclusion, it could create a system that undermines itself.

There is a lot of activity that an academic undertakes that acts as ‘glue’ holding together the whole scholarly practice. Consider the following tasks for instance:

  • Reviewing journal articles
  • Editing journals
  • Examining PhDs
  • Organising conferences
  • Giving keynotes, workshops, seminars, etc

Now, although there is sometimes an honorarium associated with these, I would suggest that we don’t really fully cost them as activities and charge appropriately. The reason is that it is understood that this is part of what is required to make the whole system function. Someone from University X examines a PhD student from University Y, and later someone from Y examines one from Z, and so on. I get asked to examine quite a few PhDs. It’s generally both a pleasant thing to do, and also very useful in that it helps keep me up with the field also. You will sometimes get an honorarium for these, say £200, but if we were to fully cost it, then the figure would be closer to £2000 I expect. I’m a pretty quick reader and reviewer, but even so it takes me a couple of days to read a thesis, and then there is the viva day itself. I know colleagues who will spend much longer reading a thesis. Some of that reading takes place in work time, some in my own time, some could be counted as research time, some as a service to the other university. So it’s messy, but the point is we don’t make an attempt to properly cost it. And that is a really good thing. If we did then the administration involved would add significantly to the actual cost.

Then look at all those other activities listed above (and you can probably think of more). As there is increasing pressure on universities to justify student fees, to account for staff time, to monetise every aspect of the education process, I fear that such activities will be ‘realistically’ costed. The result of which might be to make them unviable. There is also a strong element of game theory once we start costing these activities – it would be to your institution’s benefit to be selfish rather than benevolent, ie to get more out of the system than you put in. And then others start acting the same. When someone suggests that we start costing these activities appropriately, my suggestion is you quote Billy Bragg to them: “The temptation to take the precious things we have apart to see how they work must be resisted for they never fit together again.”


  1. Great post.

    Similar things happen elsewhere – being part of a tech startup, say, can easily involve things which don’t pay back directly but where a general community or communities benefit through many people playing a role. As an engineer, I might help develop a new standard, run a local meetup for developers, collaborate on a new product with another company (or several!), review funding proposals (yes, these happen outside universities – eg InnovateUK grants), talk in a school about careers in tech, manage a summer intern, organise a conference… All of these things do not directly benefit my employer, but help contribute to a thriving sector, with new people coming in, skills increased, duplicate work minimised, technologies advanced – benefiting many companies and many engineers.

    Again, it would be a disaster to try to track all that and to cost/charge it out. It’s all the cost of doing business. But it’s important to be aware that it is happening, and that when one has to cut back, that something important is lost.

    1. Yes you’re quite right Laura, it does happen elsewhere. I guess in start-up world, it’s up to the company if they indulge in this, but in universities, I worry that external pressures will make it more unlikely, or as you say, when those cutbacks are called for it becomes a likely target.

      1. Ultimately it’s a similar problem – explaining to folks worried about money that it’s worth investing in work with indirect impact. Or, I suppose, cultural change such that those worrying about money have a good appreciation of the shared benefit work.

  2. The basic issue in very many organisations especially education is that the management and administration are not seen as ‘parasites’ on the main money generating activity carried out by the academics, research and teaching. Minimizing parasites maximizes the fitness of the organisation, unfortunately there are no cleaner fish available to delouse most organisations. I am not saying management and admin are not required but they should be seen for what they are and treated appropriately rather than being seen as the only safe option for career progression. Administrators could not comprehend all the extra hours worked by academics, 18 hours 6 or 7 days a week on fieldwork for several months will not fit in any of their spreadsheets so the amount of work was simply recorded as much less than actually done. Without doing the full amount of work the right amount of data can’t be collected to write the papers and get the next grant.

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