‘Contact hours’ – the new dilemma
For anyone working in a higher education institution, one of the messages they they will have been hearing with increasing frequency is that the general public believes that academics don’t work enough. To put it more precisely, there is a view out there that a university lecturer spends too much time doing other stuff, perhaps even important stuff, but far too little time actually teaching anyone or offering students direct help and support. This reached a kind of climax when Batt O’Keeffe, while still Minister for Education, announced that he had been told by ‘two senior academics’ that university lecturers only taught four hours per week.
The fact is that he is not alone in believing something like this to be true. Other key stakeholders, and members of the general public – even when not supported in their views by two senior academics (whose personal workload certainly needs to be examined) – are also frequently reported to be sceptical about the extent to which university lecturers really earn their salaries.
Of course the academic community will want to deny the truth of these assertions, and will rightly point out that they are made without any real credible (or indeed any) evidence other than random anecdotes. The problem we face, however, is that we cannot respond with any greater credibility, because we too are inclined to conscript anecdotal evidence to the cause. So I might respond, for example, that the academics I know work for 60-70 hours per week, and many of them are able to respond to emails directly at midnight (demonstrating their very long working day). But that’s also not evidence. And given the state of the university sector, and moreover given the attitude of our funders and potential backers, we do need to be able to provide more hard data.
In many respects we are at a disadvantage vis-à-vis the Institutes of Technology, whose lecturers all have a contractual obligation to teach for 16 hours per week during the teaching term. University lecturers are under no such explicit contractual obligation. Of course 16 hours teaching isn’t 16 hours work, because the teaching needs to be prepared, student outputs need to be assessed, and so forth. If a university lecturer were under an obligation to teach this number of hours they could not possibly do any consistent research, and of course there is no research obligation in the Institutes.
But here is the dilemma. We need to be able to make a proper case, but in order to do so we need robust information and data. But collecting this would be very difficult, because I suspect it would encounter trade union resistance. Furthermore, if we had the data and published it, and if – as some are suggesting – this is used to impose a contractual minimum of contact hours for academics, that minimum would be seen by many as the maximum in a context of mutual distrust, and before we know it lecturers will actually work less than before as we will have lost the spirit of goodwill that keeps us going, even in hard times. On the other hand, if we do not have the data we will be victims of the ‘they don’t really work’ prejudice in the wider society, with possible funding and regulatory implications.
It seems to me that we must conduct this information gathering exercise, but do so carefully and with safeguards built in. But I don’t see the alternative, if we are to protect the universities’ position and the reputation of academics.Explore posts in the same categories: higher education, university comment below, or link to this permanent URL from your own site.