Academics in a fractured community?

Yesterday I looked at the recent comments by the Minister for Education, Batt O’Keeffe TD, about academic teaching workloads. In the post I argued that politicians should not make or propose policies that are not backed by proper and credible evidence. In this case, the Minister’s comments were, as he told us, prompted by something he had been told by two ‘high profile’ academics.

Assuming that the Minister was correctly repeating the advice he had been given by the academics in question, they were telling him that university lecturers only taught four hours per week. Since this is very far indeed from the truth, why, one would want to ask, would any academics offer him such views? And indeed what were they expecting or hoping he would do with this information?

It may be – and for the purposes of yesterday’s post I had assumed it was so – that they were for whatever reason aiming to persuade him to look more closely at academic performance and to introduce measures to increase workloads, perhaps through funding mechanisms. But it is equally possible that their agenda was quite different, and that, for example, the target of their advice was the increasing focus in universities on high value research and the impact this was having on teaching. Or it may be that they were aiming at university presidents who were allowing distorted workloads to emerge in the system. Unless the Minister says more, or unless the academics who were briefing him speak up in public or are outed, we cannot know.

But their action (assuming it was as we have been told) indicates one thing that most of us know – that as universities have to grapple with funding issues and public criticisms and competing claims for their attention, the internal atmosphere increasingly resembles that of a pressure cooker and unpredictable responses and actions become possible.

At such times it is easy for those of commenting in a public forum to sound increasingly defensive, and maybe to appear to be resistant to change and reform. For myself, I have little doubt that we do need more change. But we should not embark upon this with unfounded allegations of poor performance. And those academics who undertake private briefings of key politicians should be careful that their advice does not undermine the academic community as a whole.

Over the past year or two, one of my key concerns has been that the avalanche of bad financial news as regards funding, the introduction of new controls and restrictions on university autonomy, and the drip-drip of  uninformed criticism would create such pressures and tensions within the university that it would become next to impossible to generate new ideas and new initiatives and to open up new sources of income. I also feared that it would kill of genuine intellectual debate, as people would simply become too tired and too fed up to pursue real academic discourse. I have tried – though I cannot judge with what success – to maintain a more optimistic approach in DCU.

And so I hope that in our discussions and debates, both inside the academic community and outside it, we work together to promote the opportunities and benefits that Ireland can derive from a thriving system of higher education.

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4 Comments on “Academics in a fractured community?”

  1. Mike Scott Says:

    “university lecturers only taught four hours per week”

    In fact any curious or concerned citizen (or politician) can check us (DCU) out here

    http://www.dcu.ie/timetables/time3.shtml

    Pick 10 names at random and work out the average..

    However as others have pointed out, it not just the teaching, its the other stuff that takes us to 40+ hours per week.


  2. […] Academics in a fractured community? « University Blog (More on our ‘four hour’ work week) By Shane O'Mara via Academics in a fractured community? « University Blog. […]


  3. […] 4 hours a week Posted in February 2nd, 2010 by James in Uncategorized Ferdinand von Prondzynski has been writing about Bat O’Keefe’s allegation that some university academics only work 4 hours per week, or […]


  4. […] academics are worried about this. I’m not. I think this is a great thing. I think it’s wonderful. […]


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