Education: Dons who are paid a pittance

A report out today shows that many external examiners are paid less than the minimum wage.
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British academics, as we know, are badly paid. If they take on extra responsibility by doing a spot of external examining, their rates of pay slump even further, according to a report published today by the Association of University Teachers.

In fact, 17.6 per cent of external examiners surveyed by the dons' union are paid less than the legal minimum wage. That means they earn less than pounds 3.65 an hour - which is a good deal below the rate received by unqualified cleaners, gardeners and cashiers at Sainsbury's .

The figures are "truly shocking and a damning indictment of the system of external examining in higher education in the UK", says the AUT in its survey of academics at Nottingham and Sheffield universities, and at University College, London. "External examiners are near the top of their profession in their particular field. Given that, how can more than one in six of our `quality guardians' be paid an illegal rate?" As many as 38.9 per cent of academics earn less than pounds 5 an hour for external examining; 45.6 per cent are on less than pounds 6 an hour, and 70.5 per cent receive less than pounds 10 an hour.

Yet this is important work. External examiners are supposed to check that a degree awarded at one university is comparable to a degree awarded at another. They are also supposed to check that students are treated fairly by the examiners at their own institution. Increasingly in the new political climate, they are being seen as a way to ensure that standards in higher education are being maintained.

The work done by external examiners is also laborious - or certainly should be. On a Bachelors course, they peruse a selection of scripts representing students at the top, in the middle and at the bottom of the scale - as well as those who are borderline first-class degree or failure. They visit the university to take part in vivas and exam board meetings, and they prepare reports. External examiners for PhDs have to read and assess a thesis, write a report on it, attend a viva and write another report. Typically, all that takes about four days. Yet PhD rates are abysmal - worse than the rates for Bachelors and Masters degrees.

Rates vary also by institution. The higher the status of the institution, the less the examiner gets paid, a curiously British phenomenon, the report found. Thus, an external examiner employed by a university belonging to the prestigious Russell Group (research universities with medical schools) receives a daily rate of, on average, pounds 50.72. At a former polytechnic, he or she receives pounds 87.06. Examiners in the new universities are paid 64 per cent more than their colleagues in the old universities.

Not one person replying to the survey received the AUT's recommended minimum rate for Masters degrees or PhDs. And very few were receiving the recommended rate for Bachelors courses, which is pounds 155 a day for courses with up to 50 students, and pounds 180 a day for courses with more than 50.

Rates paid by the University of London cause particular resentment. The flat-rate fee for a PhD is a mere pounds 85. In the AUT survey, special criticism was made of King's College, London. But King's told The Independent that it has now revised rates for external examiners of Bachelors and Masters degrees and is paying an average of pounds 500-700 to each examiner.

The AUT is considering using the survey as a basis for industrial action and may suggest to members that they refuse to undertake external examining as part of this year's pay dispute. "The Vice Chancellors' committee doesn't have the smallest idea how bad the situation is," says David Treisman, the union's general secretary.

`Cheating the Examiner, A Survey of University External Examiners' Fees', is available from the Research Dept, AUT, Egmont House, 25-31 Tavistock Place, London WC1H 9UT


l "The fees are a joke. I can get paid more for being an extra in a film or TV production than for examining a PhD. The former requires no training or skill, the latter requires me to be an expert in my field. The fees should be tripled or quintupled to make them more realistic."

l "I do feel demeaned by the pay. In fact, I would prefer to be paid nothing at all really. It feels sort of insulting to be offered pounds 3 an hour. My son's paper round is better paid."

l "The returns are a pittance. I don't know why I bother. I suppose it's something to do with a sense of `If I do it, others will reciprocate for my students'. But deep down I know I'm being shafted."

l "PhD exam fees are the most insulting element of academic pay. The University of London pays something in the order of pounds 85 plus expenses - for what can easily be 40 hours of work."