Trial and admin error

Infuriating bureaucracy puts Adrian Shaughnessy off lecturing. Can’t the universities streamline the booking process for the sake of their students?

I like going into art schools – or universities, as we must call them. I like lecturing, I like running workshops, I like students and I like tutors (except the rare few who clearly dislike their jobs). But, most of all I like the atmosphere of learning and discovery. I like this because I didn’t go to art school myself, and now realise that by going straight into a hard-nosed professional workplace (I trained in a studio), I missed that period of experimentation that students benefit from.

So, when I’m asked to talk to students I rarely say no. And yet, on more and more occasions I’m coming to the conclusion that I’d rather not bother. This is not because of the miniscule fees that visiting lecturers are offered. No, it is because of the Kafkaesque bureaucracy that universities inflict on outsiders.

Here’s what normally happens. A friendly tutor gets in touch and invites me to give a talk. The conversation usually ends with the chilling words, ‘The administration office will be in touch’. What follows next varies from university to university – but encounters with admin departments are invariably dispiriting.

Increasingly, I find myself being treated like a fraudster. Most universities insist on paying the tiny fee through the Pay As You Earn system, thus deducting tax at source; this forces me to waste time ringing up to point out that I’m self-employed and VAT-registered. Others send forms assuming that I am joining the staff; these forms are usually accompanied by reams of paperwork listing the regulations surrounding part- time staff.

On one occasion, a bossy woman rang up and said she’d been told that I was giving a lecture at her university; she informed me that the fee was £150. I thanked her and pointed out that I was VAT-registered. Oh, she said, that will have to come out of your fee, as will any travel expenses. I declined her offer.

But, it gets worse. I recently agreed to run a one-day workshop at a Scottish university. As usual, I received a pile of paperwork inviting me to join the part-time teaching staff, and enough health and safety regulations to give a European Union bureaucrat an orgasm. It would have taken a day to fill out this pile of forms – the most eye-catching of which was one that demanded to know if I had ever been prosecuted for molesting minors.

I take lecturing seriously. I don’t do ‘show and tell’ presentations. I prepare talks based on aspects of design that are relevant to students. My lectures are well-received and students usually tell me they find them helpful in preparing for professional life after graduation. (OK, I recently had a guy sleep through an entire lecture, but that’s not normal.) Preparing these talks requires time and effort, and sometimes has to be done at the expense of paid work, which makes it galling to be treated as someone who can be permitted to talk to students, but not trusted to pay his own tax.

We are told that universities are under-funded – some of the design schools I visit certainly look fairly spartan. Yet, there seem to be ample resources for mind-numbing bureaucracy.

If the punitive actions of university finance departments result in fewer people willing to do visiting lecturing, the universities are guilty of short-changing students – at the same time as they are doubling their tuition fees.

Adrian Shaughnessy

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