Travel expenses: are academics on the fiddle?
A few weeks ago I was puzzled why my $250 or so travelling expenses had not arrived from a "leading American University" for lecture I had done in November. (It was, by the way, UCLA -- but let me say that no blame lies with any of the Classics department staff for the little story I shall recount).
I had submitted the e-ticket, and full confirmation that I had travelled (besides I had, after all. delivered the lecture, so I had got to LA from San Francisco somehow). There was a problem, they explained. They didn't have full confirmation to show that I myself had bought the ticket on which I travelled, on my very own credit card. They could not reimburse me until they confirmed that I had paid for the ticket.I had two instant reactions to this. First, why the hell should I give a full credit card bill of mine to the accounts department at UCLA (I mean, I've heard about what happens when they go astray, and about identity theft and so on). Second, why was it any of their business if (say) my husband had paid on his credit card (suppose, not too unlikely, that mine had maxed out)? Would they not have paid then?
Of course, though, I needed the money and dutifully faxed them the credit card bill.
The point is, I reflected later, that these systems of reimbursement (my airfares or MPs expenses, for that matter) only work on a system of trust. Once you are tracking down each individual receipt, the system is in melt down.
Until recently my own Faculty's travel money worked on just such a system of trust. Each member of the Faculty had a travel/research fund limit each year, and you submitted a claim for expenses up to that amount. You could submit receipts, and that was sometimes easier, but you didn't have to. Each claim was looked at by two senior members of the Faculty, and if it looked odd they would 'give you a call' (you didn't want that, I can assure you). Otherwise, you were free to spend up to your limit, as you chose, on your research travel expenses.
Now they have said that the 'auditors' require receipts, and sooner or later we will be in the UCLA position.
So were we on the fiddle?
No we weren't. Academics are truly underpaid, but we don't go around inventing false travel claims up to a maximum £1500 to feather our own nest. In fact, I imagine that we have always paid a lot of our own money for our foreign conference expenses. That's how sad we are.
Does this new system adequately reimburse us? No it doesn't. Any one who has rushed from teaching to get to a train for a conference, to find the train running late and being forced to take a cab at the other end, will know how hard it is to remember to get a proper receipt. And even if you do, it won't include the tip you add on, to get him to weave through the rush hour traffic and get you there on time.
Then again, when you have to get to Heathrow airport for the cheapest 6.00 am flight, the auditors are likely to look askance at the £100 it might have taken you to get there by cab, even though you saved the university £300 by taking the early flight. At this point you start to think of all those phone calls you have made for the university at home, on your own phone bill -- and to reflect that you never get paid back for those. That didn't seem to matter too much, so long as they trusted you; but now you decide to claim for that seminar in London you went to (ticket safely preserved) before you went onto dinner with a friend.
Does it protect the university? No, of course not -- it just protects the auditors. For a start, there is the 'semi-official' trip I've just mentioned that you would not have claimed for before. But then there's also the point that anyone setting out to defraud could easily now print out multiple copies of their e-tickets, boarding passes and credit card bills, and try to get the money back from both their home and visiting institution. I have never done this, I hasten to stress -- but you can see that a 'receipt' is not what it was.
At the end of all this, I feel (uncharacteristically) sorry for Jacqui Smith. You can begin to see how her bill for that bath plug crept into her expenses. If it's receipts they want, it's receipts they shall have. And the few pence for the bath plug might have gone some way to make up for other money she had lost on this pseudo-transparent, receipt obsessive exercise.