The Pools of Academic Goodwill

The Pools of Academic Goodwill

Much of academia is not run like a commercial business, or at least not yet. Many of the jobs I do are not paid for by the recipient of my efforts: referee reports for journals, examining of some PhDs and writing references are three examples which come to mind straight away. Rather than being directly paid for these tasks by the recipient, my home institution understands that they are paying for me to spend some of my time on external matters. Of course my university also draws from that pool as do I – journals use referees for my papers, my students need examiners, I needed references to pursue my own academic career. Overall, everything probably balances out.

For some of this work I may get paid, though anyone in the commercial world would probably find the rates at best to be humorous and at worst insulting. For a PhD viva in the UK I get around £150 (around U$200), which is about 24 hours work at the rate of the UK’s minimum wage. I reckon it takes me three working days to read a thesis (if there are no problems and if I am relatively familiar with the work) so that leaves the actual exam unpaid even at minimum wage rates. I was recently an examiner for a PhD in Vienna. The trip alone took more than 24 hours and in this case it was expenses only. Some types of external academic work may have some benefits for me. I read the Viennese PhD thesis from cover to cover: it was a pleasure that I would never have had if I had not been an examiner on this particular thesis. Such detailed reading time is a precious commodity these days. Some of this work can be used to support the case for my own career progression. Here, being an external examiner for another University’s undergraduate programme is an example of a measure of esteem that might count in my favour in a review meeting. Of course the link between such work and promotion is a very tenuous link, while the work itself is quite demanding and invariably underpaid. Again we all do this work as we understand that we need examiners for our own PhD students and for our own undergraduate exams, we will draw from the pool of academic goodwill.

A more interesting case is the value of the work done by academic refereeing for journals which has been estimated at about £1.9bn per year, and £165 million for the UK alone. There is real value in this work spent commenting on academic papers yet while journals charge others  for their service and they make profits, none of the fees charged by journals make it to referees.  So journals also draw on academic goodwill.

In the book Whackademia Richard Hil says that academics are no longer trusted as professionals but are to be monitored and measured. He suggests that before this, internal pressure and support from within an academic community ensured everyone made their contribution, even if this was in different ways. Richard Hil suggests that the new neo-liberal business-like approach encourages an individualism that destroys fails to value contributions to a shared pool of academic goodwill and so actually reduces overall returns.  We have to maximise our individual measured outputs so everything else, useful or not, gets dropped.

So if the UK government, and maybe others, want to push a more business approach on universities they ought to think carefully. Perhaps they should first try to value the cost of business style consultancy over academic goodwill.