‘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.

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23 Comments on “‘Contact hours’ – the new dilemma”

  1. kevin denny Says:

    Contact hours are an input and I think it is vastly more useful to publish measures of output or, if you want to be sophisticated, measures of value added. Someone could spend all day “in contact” with students but it wouldn’t make them a good academic. If you are going to collect data on teaching then you have to measure research output too. Batt’s mysterious pair of informers may well only teach a few hours a week but then maybe they publish lots of papers in peer reviewed international journals. Though, I strongly suspect one or both of them does not & indeed never has.
    Fussing about academics’ contact hours is really a convenient distraction from the important issues that need to be faced. I am beginning to realize that is how education issues are debated in Ireland: find some side issue that people can argue over and ignore the important stuff.
    The prime example, of course, are discussions of widening access to university which are centered around the presence (or otherwise) of tuition fees which are essentially irrelevant. It beats talking about what matters, doesn’t it?

    • Kelly Says:

      I agree that the very reductionist focus on contact hours is a distraction from the more important issues. One debate I believe is sorely needed is about the relationship between the IoT sector and the university sector. As a relative (and still baffled) newcomer to Irish universities, my main contact with academic staff in the IoT sector has been through teaching/supervising (up to doctoral level) and sharing my research output with them in various ways. I’d like to know whether my experience is unique, because if it is not then it suggests that the IoT sector is somewhat dependent on the research and higher level teaching of the university sector. Would it not make sense to get some evidence about this relationship to add to the debate?

      What I do know through my (very enjoyable) relationships with academics in the IoT sector is that they are not contracted to do any work between now and September – at least that is what some of them have told me so apologies if it is not accurate. This summer I will be marking their coursework and producing research publications and editing journals that some of them will use in future. This is fine with me, but why is the yardstick how many hours the academics in IoTs spend standing in front of students during term time and not some other measure of, as Kevin says above, the value added through other academic outputs that take place all year round?

      • Jilly Says:

        Yes Kelly, you’re right. IoT staff are on statutory leave between June 21st and August 31st. And that’s real leave, too: no phone calls, no email, nothing.

        I used to work in an IoT, teaching 16-18 hours a week, and now I work in a university. In my experience of comparing the two, IoT staff may actually have MORE time for research, should they choose to use that 10-week summer period for that purpose, than we do in universities, where the admin, student contact etc goes on and on through the summer.


    • Kevin, I agree entirely with you, but the trouble is that the ‘outside world’ has been persuaded that a response along those lines means we don’t want to be accountable or offer transparency! We’ll probably have to engage with this, despite our misigivings. And Wendy’s point is a fair one – we can turn the information to our advantage. Right now, all we have in the public domain is the apparent claim by two academics that lecturers hardly lecture at all!

    • Ernie Ball Says:

      If you are going to collect data on teaching then you have to measure research output too. Batt’s mysterious pair of informers may well only teach a few hours a week but then maybe they publish lots of papers in peer reviewed international journals.

      This widely-shared view is why Ireland will never have anything but mediocre academics. In this scenario, Colleague A who “teaches a few hours a week but publishes lots of (pointless, unread, low quality) papers in peer-reviewed international journals” will “measure” more highly than will Colleague B who also teaches a few hours per week but is working (just as hard as Colleague A) on a very deep and complex and perhaps groundbreaking book that will not see the light of day for 5-10 years. The mania for measurement of the unmeasurable will ensure that Colleague B’s teaching load is increased because he/she is not “delivering the outputs” that Colleague A is. Colleague B is taken aside by some management flunky and condescendingly told that he/she should really consider “doing more research.” Result: Colleague B’s book takes 20 years to complete (if it is ever completed) while Colleague A continues to pump out the pointless makework that nobody will ever read.

      It’s a bit like Heisenberg’s Uncertainty principle in reverse. Call it the Ernie Ball Certainty Principle. Unlike Heisenberg, you can have certainty about what you’re measuring. But as with Heisenberg, the act of measuring affects the thing measured, in this case rendering it worthless.

      Needless to say, the best universities in the world aren’t run like this. But many of them were set up by actual thinkers that weren’t haunted by the hobgoblins that frighten our managerial elites (“someone who spent years and years training for a career might be getting away with something!”) and the simpletons in the general public who think academic work is like working in a cannery in that you won’t do it unless you are forced to (by circumstance). Can punch clocks be far off?

      • Al Says:

        Well said Ernie.
        I was talking to two University lecturers recently about this time management and documentation process.
        Their final view was that they cant wait to work their full 40 hr proven week. It will be a change that they current do around the 70!

  2. wendymr Says:

    You mean this isn’t already being done? Back in the late 1990s, at Keele this data (weekly contact hours for individual academics) was collected in departments and in some form reported to the centre. And, yes, there was some resistance, though more from individuals than from the union, as we believed that it would demonstrate that our contact hours were a lot higher than management believed, thank you very much…

  3. Vincent Says:

    The question is would you do what you are doing if you were a co-operative of scholars nor civil servants.

  4. iainmacl Says:

    Here we’ve introduced workload models that provide an altogether richer picture of overall activities including teaching, research and other. Providing a bit more transparency over each other’s workload and responsibilities is something that universities really need to pursue to ensure that there is greater equity and something that can easily be done within the system rather than be imposed externally. Done properly, it can also help to strengthen collegiality, something that is essential in times of stress/crisis in the sector.


    • Thanks, Iain – and I agree that overall workload models are an important ingredient in getting this right.

      • Ernie Ball Says:

        See my reply to Kevin Denny above. Workload models that attempt to take account of “research outputs” do nothing but reward those who churn out the busywork. Or did it never occur to anyone that such systems can be and are gamed much more than the so-called “unaccountable” systems they’re replacing?

        In my shop, the person who comes out on top of all these measurements is universally acknowledged to be something less than an intellectual and one who has absolutely nothing of substance to say. But this person is fantastic at producing reams of garbage (peer-reviewed, bien sûr and uses that to reduce his/her teaching load to the great resentment of all of the other colleagues.

  5. devastarte66 Says:

    responsibility is more important. on the other hand, we need the data so i agree with you. find the data and they can say you’ve worked.

  6. Cormac Says:

    Very interesting post. Re summer holidays in the IoT sector, I must say, I agree with Jill and it’s a point not often made. On the other hand, it can be desperately hard to keep up research during termtime.

    Re teaching hours in the universities, I also think that DCU is somewhat of an exception – certainly my colleagues in physics in DCU seem to have a very heavy load, more akin to an IoT than TCD..

    Re Ferdinand’s comment “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”….
    Exactly. I think that is a very real danger. Academics are self-driven in a very unusual way – it would be very easy to destroy this motivation


  7. The characterisation of lecturers which worries contributors here is no more than a particular example of the lies spread about many hard-working people especially those in the public sector. Ignore it! Sensible people don’t believe it. Students know the truth of the after hours phone contact and the midnight e-mail, and they talk to family and friends. For goodness sake don’t be drawn into divisive comparisons between those who work in universities and those who work in other institutions or between those who publish in journals and those who publish books or indeed don’t publish at all.

    • kevin denny Says:

      Colum, if by “divisive” you mean distinguishing between those who do research (and work pretty hard) and those who do not, then being divisive is essential. Because one is acceptable and one is not. Students may know about our teaching input but they have no idea of- or interest in- our research activities. Even friends of mine who are graduates greet me around May with “Off now for the summer? Ah sure its well for you..”.
      So if the public, not to mention a Minister, judge us on the basis of an unrepresentative few then we are going to get royally screwed. If it is examples of such dossers that have the ear of the Minister it certainly does not help.


      • Kevin,
        That’s not at all what I said! There are dossers in every workplace in every industry and there are those who love to work. It is in no one’s interest to protect dossers but what generally happens when someone wants have a go at a group is that they use some extraordinarily poor behaviour to create a fictional type and then wait for those put on the defensive to attack one another.

  8. Al Says:

    Ferdinand

    This may be more about management attempting to make a statement of their potence to manage, than about academic virtues or vices…

    It also hightlights how difficult it is to manage innovation and the like, as attempting to measure, control and improve such is exceedingly difficult.

    Rendering some metric explicit usually does so at the cost of making implicit another potential metric.
    The long term result being everyone emphasising or paying lip service to the explicit metric, even if an implicit metric is more important in the long term.

    But, in saying this, surely the important questions are:
    What are Academics supposed to do?
    How well do they do that?
    How can they be helped?

    I would argue that there is probably a fundamental misunderstanding of what ‘work’ an academic does, and trying to equate research- which is basically innovation of thought, with time or effort metrics is foolish.

    Tis perspiration and inspiration!!!
    How does one measure inpsiration?

  9. Vincent Says:

    How the hell have you shower managed to get me thinking of the GBS quote about the Bankers.
    He preferred to be in the company of Bankers rather that Artists.


  10. […] 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. Thi … Read More […]

  11. Kevin Lalor Says:

    “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 … 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.”

    In fact, there is a contractual obligation to research in the IoT sector. The contract of employment for Lecturers includes (in addition to the norm of 16 class contact hours per week) “Engaging in research, consultancy and development work as appropriate”.

  12. Kieran Says:

    Interesting article here, but not big on specifics. Allow me to give you the perspective from my experience at third level in Dublin, from my master’s degree in North America.

    From my own experience, the inclination and enthusiasm to do research in Irish universities is not as fervent as in North America (NA). Students in their 3rd or 4th degree programmes in NA are acutely aware of the need to have good quality grades from year one in order to successfully apply for research funding at master’s or PhD level. The motivation and push for good grades is both intrinsic but strongly supported by the academics who are very genuinely interested in pursuing research. I do not believe that the same desire to do research is evident in our universities, I say this because I met with and continued to stay in contact with each of three departments in my field of research over a two year period while completing my master’s of science degree. During this time, I enquired about PhD possibilities with three schools including DCU. One school didn’t reply to my original enquiry, another sort of let the contact slip by the way side by not returning my emails and the final university basically told me that due to the economic climate that there was little point in applying for funding. My enquiry was for PhD studies in science.

    I also believe that our marking system is outdated and lacks specificity. In NA, exams are given per semester, courses are very specifically credited, and the marking schemes are specific in terms of weight per question giving a GPA out of 4.0 or 4.15. Our system of 1st and 2nd class honours is very vague, often times requires students to be able to write good essays instead of demonstrate knowledge, comprehension or judgement. I went to go back to my university to ask for the exact results of my questions in 1st, 2nd, and 3rd year exams before applying for my master’s degree, and they were not available. I presume that they were lost or binned, but the impression given was that the exam and marks were not that highly regarded by either the lecturers or the university. When applying for my master’s degree here in Canada, they could not understand how my marks were not available. This is only as recent as 2001.

    All in all, I don’t buy the argument that academic’s time is taken up with preparing courses, correcting marks or doing research. Firstly, when a course is prepared once, it can be given the following year without wholesale changes as the research being done in most fields does not change significantly year to year, courses may be tweaked based on 1-2 papers but in the main they don’t change a lot. Secondly, lecturing at university level really does not equate to teaching. Lecturers give lectures, but the ratio of lecturer to students per class does not really facilitate “teaching” so the onus is very much on the student to stay up to speed. Thirdly, when looking wholesale at the staff publication list from a random academic department in NA v Ireland, you will see an exhaustive list of publications from most staff in NA. In fact, the standard requirement in becoming an assistant or associate professor in NA is a post-doctorate qualification of 2-3 years. At PhD level, 3-4 publications is the standard and by post-doc stage the academic has a solid résumé which allows for specific lines of research to be investigated. In Ireland, I am not sure what percentage of academics have post-doctoral qualifications and how many papers on average they publish a) during their PhD b) before they take a position lecturing (tenured or not) c) what the requirements are to continue to research during their academic year or in their careers.

    I believe that having come through and received my master’s of science in NA, that we have along way to go in terms demonstrating a genuine will and enthusiasm for research, and in becoming more accountable for our work at third level.

  13. Ernie Ball Says:

    I trust, Ferdinand, that you’ve seen this, which adduces this blog post as evidence that such workloads are needed (citing you quite selectively, I might add). Of course, the Independent doesn’t do nuance and is always looking for new public sector targets in order to make sure that the corporate tax rate doesn’t go up.

    Also relevant to this post is an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education entitled “We Must Stop the Avalanche of Low-Quality Research”. Needless to say, every indication is that Ireland intends to go in the other direction and is hell-bent on increasing the flow of low-quality research. The Irish view seems to be based on some strange combination of puritanism (where all work is equal but the important thing is that one is working) and the sort of productivist ideology that sees academic work as ultimately the same thing as the production of sausages.

    Most telling statistic in the article to my mind: the number of refereed journals increases by 3.26% per annum.

    Perhaps you’d like to address this article in a blog post, Ferdinand?


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