It’s that time of year again. Yesterday I was at a reception and chatted with a group of entirely pleasant people whom I hadn’t met before, and who came from various professions and walks of life. One of them said to me, very pleasantly: ‘It must be so nice for you and your colleagues to have this lovely holiday between now and September.’ Everyone nodded. As I said, they were very nice people. In fact, I had to keep telling myself they were very nice people, because unless I convinced myself of that on the spot I was going to have to hit them, causing a nasty incident with journalists present. So instead, putting on my most patient and friendly voice, I pointed out that university lecturers certainly don’t have three months off in the summer, and that overwhelmingly they wouldn’t be away for more than three weeks or so, and some a lot less. ‘Of course, of course’, they replied in an indulgent tone. They didn’t believe a word I had said, but they weren’t going to provoke an argument.
I suspect this is the kind of infuriating moment that many academics experience. And while I stand over my reply to these nice people, I also know that my case is weakened by the fact that a lot of people in the education sector do have a lot of time off in the summer. I remember that when I returned to Ireland from the UK in 2000 to take up the presidency of DCU, I took our children from their English school and transferred them here. And at first I simply could not believe that the summer holidays here began at the end of May for most secondary students. I really couldn’t believe it. In the UK it would have been late July. When I went to secondary school in Germany the summer holidays were exactly six weeks long, and teachers were only able to take just under four of those.
But it’s not just schools. Our colleagues in the Institute of Technology sector in Ireland have contractual rights to summer holidays stretching over two months and more. And so, because there is no contractual position we could cite when having annoying conversations like mine yesterday, absolutely nobody believes that the position in universities is different. And yet, it is – emphatically. Over the summer my staff in DCU are expected to work on their research, organise or attend or speak at conferences, prepare the next year’s syllabus, supervise research students, teach on postgraduate programmes running over the summer, and do countless other things that they will need to get done in order to progress their careers. But the world outside believes they are all sitting by some swimming pool in Tenerife or perfecting their golf. And because we have been so unconvincing, those who comment on academic performance and sometimes take decisions on pay and other matters often conclude that university academics work less and less hard than those employed by institutes of technology.
This is another one of those cases where we have to gather and publish reliable data that can be used to rebut such comments, because if we don’t we will continue to be treated as work-shy. But we must also face up to the fact that the terms of employment in education more generally as regards summer vacations are no longer really acceptable and will have to be re-thought. The time is right for reform.