I write a lot for other websites and towards the end of last year the Editor of the Editorial Photographers UK site asked me to write something about photography education. It started like this:
What price your dream?
In Britain a staggering 1600 photography courses will be touting for students in 2012. Neil Turner, professional photographer and tutor on a new photojournalism course that starts in Bournemouth this month, asks whether enough of these courses actually prepare students for the harsh realities of professional photography today.
If you get a dozen professional photographers together and ask them about the state, standard and suitability of photographic education in this country you’ll get two dozen anecdotes about graduates who don’t know their arse from their f-stop, and a consensus that higher education is failing the students and the industry. Is this true? Are we missing something, or is the system getting it wrong big-time?
This is a first for me – writing an open letter to a bunch of people that I don’t really know and who, personally, have done me no harm. The accounts people in question all work for educational establishments in the UK and the rules that they are inventing/enforcing/misusing are costing me a small amount of money but far more importantly they are preventing students from hearing from a lot of wonderful professionals who have stopped doing one or two days here and there as visiting lecturers.
To whom it may concern
Thank you for the paperwork that you recently sent to me that I would have to complete before coming to your establishment to work with student photographers for one day. I have looked at the forms and decided that it would take me at least an hour to fill them in. I have also realised that a full-time permanent employee of the college would have exactly the same forms to fill in. This seems a little ridiculous, given that my time with your students will be restricted to five hours this week and no more than fifteen in any one year.
I was also disappointed to read that you wish to have all of my National Insurance and tax references and that you would be deducting tax and National Insurance at source from me even though I am a self-employed professional who is registered for VAT. I know that you will quote ‘advice from the HMRC’ as the reason and I would love to read this advice. Unfortunately a long telephone call to the tax authorities and a diligent search of their website have failed to turn up this ‘advice’.
Presumably, having taken tax from me at source, you would be obliged to issue me with a P60 tax certificate at the end of the financial year. This was a piece of information that HMRC’s advice line was able to give me. I am sure that all of this form-filling and certificate issuing covers your back quite nicely. I am equally sure that if you have to repeat the same process for every visiting lecturer it has the added benefit of creating or at least securing the job or jobs of members of staff within your department.
My problem is this: I used to do visits to a lot of colleges and I have refused to get involved in this PAYE farce because for every different college that has to send me a P60 I have to fill in another page on my tax return because each is treated as a separate employment. In one year I have been known to visit eight different colleges – eight extra pages on my tax return, and I have to get that each of them checked by my accountant. Time is money – especially at Chartered Accountant rates. This is on top of the extra hours I have to spend filling in your own forms (which arrive as badly laid out Microsoft Word documents with a good deal of redundant information asked for by the way) and, more often than not, having to chase for payments because you award yourselves 60 days credit as well.
How hard would it be to accept that I want to simply send the college an invoice for my time and my expenses instead of going through this dense bureaucracy? How hard would it be to realise that I am a legitimately self-employed professional who has no intention of ripping the system off and avoiding my obligations to the treasury? I am sure that HMRC never intended whatever rule you are citing to actually get in the way of the students getting contact with professionals. I know that it isn’t just me. I know a lot of other self-employed people who are at the top of their game who want nothing to do with very occasional visits to educational establishments for the very same reason.
So, no thank you. I will leave it to you to explain to the head of the course who wanted me to come and share my 25+ years experience with their students for a fee that was already a lot lower than I would charge for taking pictures why I won’t be coming this year. I’ll let them know that you will be the one explaining and I will apologise for the fact that your establishment has been added to the lengthening list of places that I won’t be supporting until you change your college’s rules.