Heigh ho, it’s off to work we go – truly!

I wonder how this would look. Let us imagine that we were to organise a meeting of academics, to which we would invite four or five politicians. The purpose of the meeting would be to get an understanding of how politicians carry out their work. We might ask them how long, on average, they attend the parliamentary debating chamber, and at what time they start. We might ask about how many hours they would spend there before heading off to the bar. And we might ask them how long they spend away from parliament over the summer. And having heard their answers, we might suggest to them that this, frankly, isn’t much of a workload.

In reality of course, we wouldn’t do any of this, because we understand well enough that politicians work long hours and that they work under considerable pressures. We know it’s often a thankless job, and we know that the occasional under-performance by a small minority of politicians doesn’t represent best practice amongst them. But we know, and they know, that outside Leinster House there are a good few people who would be less willing to accept that.

However, this week the boot was on the other foot, and politicians on the Public Accounts Committee of Dail Eireann had universities in their sights. With all seven Irish university presidents before them, they asked some questions about academic workloads, and suggested that academics ‘could be working as few as 15 hours every week’ (according to Labour’s Róisín Shortall). As it happens, Ms Shortall is a regular (and often helpful) visitor to DCU, as she is one of the local TDs, and she knows well enough that this is nonsense. But if she (and some of the other politicians present at the hearing) really believes that academics are work-shy and work for only 15 hours, then we must ask ourselves why universities have been so bad at explaining how they function.

Part of the problem is that universities are reluctant to become too clinical about working hours, not least because the actual hours worked – which for many staff are 70 hours per week rather than 15 – are well in excess of what any employer could reasonably demand, and our ability to extract them from lecturers depends on a spirit of goodwill. What lecturers do goes far beyond the classroom hours; it includes surgeries with students, preparation and marking, attendance at committees and working parties, informal advice and support, research, representation of universities on public bodies, and so forth.

When I was still president of DCU, I used to send out emails at about 1 am (my working day rarely ended before 2 am), and was always amazed at how many of these emails produced immediate responses – in what other profession would that be the case? It is now 1.39 am, and if I were to send an email to every member of the Public Accounts Committee, I wonder how many responses I would get tonight.

I am not suggesting that academics should ignore all this. The times may now be over during which we could ask colleagues to work whatever hours are needed to get the job done. We may now need to make working time the subject-matter of much more precise contractual obligations. I suspect this is becoming inevitable. My fear is that when we do this everyone will lose, and the collegiality of academic working life will be compromised. But that may now be the price we have to pay, ironically, in order to get public confidence.

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15 Comments on “Heigh ho, it’s off to work we go – truly!”

  1. kevin denny Says:

    The reason why its silly to assess people by the amount of their input is that its output that counts – or Value Added if you want to be sophisticated. And when it comes to research that is how we are assessed- at least by our peers. Now if were to judge politicians by the outcomes they have delivered what would we conclude?

  2. Gary Says:

    Congratulations on your new appointment and thanks for the manner in which you have provided a forum for stimulating debate about third-level education through this blog. The past few days are a stark reminder of the need for a well-informed debate to counter populist headline-grabbing commentary that masquerades as debate.

    The most recent item listed in the “Róisín in the News” section of Róisín Shortall’s web page is “September 24th, 2010 PAC hearings on University Practices”, with links to two Irish Times articles. Since there is no sign of any retraction (or what some might term “clarification”) of her statement on her site, you have to assume that this is the impression of university lecturers she wants to leave the voting public with. This in spite of the fact that it was pointed out to her at the PAC meeting at which she made the comment, that she failed to include lecture preparation time in her estimation of time spent teaching. She happily ignored tasks such as course development, continuous assessment, examining, maintenance of virtual learning environments, etc., which are all standard components of university lecturing. In my experience of lecturing in a science discipline, this adds up to several hours per lecture – and not just the first time you deliver the course.

    I find it scarcely credible that such a shrewd TD, who probably has ministerial ambitions, could fail to see that the argument she presented was so obviously flawed, particularly when the flaws in her argument were pointed out to her in very plain terms. It appears that hostility to those working in the third-level sector is not confined to the governing parties. I am not convinced that any amount of explaining how we function will cure this hostility.

  3. Vincent Says:

    I think the issue is one that dates back to the under grad days of most of these people. Where they had about 16/20 hours of lectures. I think the basic problem is that simple.
    Even to-day, ask yourself how many lectures did you have at TCD back in the day.
    Well, what people are instinctively doing is saying they had Prof’ So-and-So PhD Cantab for 5 hours a week. He probably had all the years for the same 5. So added, you end up with 20 hours over the four years. This is where people are starting out from. It is their bit of direct evidence. And how can you blame them.

  4. Jilly Says:

    This blog probably has language filters which would prevent me posting my real feelings about Shortall’s comments. It was cheap political grandstanding, and all the less forgivable because we know that she knows better. It’s ironic, because Labour would know all about it if education workers stopped voting for them…

  5. Iainmacl Says:

    Hear, hear Jilly. it is so dispiriting and as Ferdinand says, attempts to control, monitor and standardise will lead to many people withdrawing so much of the additional ‘goodwill’ labour that the universities actually rely on. More disputes about hours clocked up, more of a focus on contractual issues. All part of Fordist, industrial model. Sadly of course there are the few for whom the present trust based system has been too tempting to resist abusing, and we’ll all pay the price. An old story, unfortunately.

    Anyway, have to head off now to do a bit more work and to cheer up my partner who is wading through piles of continuous assessment marking every night this week and hopes to finish it tomorrow, that’s Sunday by the way Roisin!

  6. Ernie Ball Says:

    Sadly of course there are the few for whom the present trust based system has been too tempting to resist abusing, and we’ll all pay the price. An old story, unfortunately.

    What evidence do we have of this? It is trotted out as if it were obvious and used to justify the imposition of really quite draconian measures. But who are these alleged dossers? Since all of the Fordist measures being put in place is meant to make them work, shouldn’t we have some idea of whether they actually exist? Never mind the next question: should they prove to exist, are you sure you want to make them publish? How is humanity served by forcing people not inclined to say things (for that, ultimately, is what publishing is) to say things against their will?

    As for abusers, I can name the names of several (mentioned by title if not by name in the C&AG’s report) who have abused their positions and used them to expropriate taxpayer money illegitimately. They weren’t serving as lecturers.

    • Iainmacl Says:

      don’t misunderstand me, ernie. There ere are some Who do this and those are the cases that get used against us in the press and political sphere ( of course the notorious double-jobber that was highlighted publicly a year or so ago being one such story that was used to this effect). But my point is exactly that they shouldn’t be used to ‘punish’ the rest. Just echoing Ferdinand’s point. If you want anecdote then I’ll give you it: in my experience the vast majority of staff are overworked in the system!

  7. Vincent Says:

    In Scotland, can you push a Maths requirement. Not the Euclid, but the projected business plan from the age of 14 on.

  8. As soon as I post this I’m off to find Roisin’s blog and differ with her.

    I came late to university via an evening degree and was astonished at the level of commitment offered by lecturers.

    The working hours of lecturers is a side issue but is rapidly becoming central as lecturers react. The main issue is excessive pay, unapproved pay and its repayment.

    Insofar as this is about lecturers, the problem might be envy of lecturers’autonomy. I’ve found that it can be difficult to argue that autonomy is productive. This is because many, looking perhaps to their own motivations and/or their dismal view of human nature, cannot accept that leaving workers to get on with it is good practice. Moreover, autonomy is hard to manage and lazy, insecure managers abhor it.

    There is no point in admitting that there are wasters in education. There are wasters everywhere. It is a management function to get rid of them and despite the anti-union myths, it can be done.

    • There are indeed very few who abuse the system, but they do exist. Dealing with them is notoriously difficult, bordering on the impossible. They do help to undermine higher education autonomy. But they are very few in number, probably far far fewer than in the average government department.

      • Ernie Ball Says:

        Is it an issue? Does dealing with this tiny minority (that exist in every line of work) require the mobilization of vast resources and changes in the work practices of all? Is that not a bit like using a blunderbuss to kill a mosquito?

        • This is not confined to universities. “Dealing with problem staff” has become a catch phrase for attempts to weaken unions and undermine hard won levels of job security. Problem staff are generally the creation of lazy management; small things were ignored in the early days and gradually behaviour got worse. Sorting such people out is not impossible, it is not even difficult but it requires slow painstaking work. This is as it should be; there can be no question of returning to an era of arbitrary management power. A manager faced with a real problem and handling it properly will find backing from staff and their unions.

          Yes, Ernie, it’s an issue. It is so precisely because it can be used by people who – though they are unwilling to face down particular messers – have no difficulty in issuing wideranging prescriptions which will not affect the messers but will affect those who as always comply.

  9. Al Says:

    Public confidence is overrated.

    IMO the public mind is bruised and looking for causes of abuse. The media is feeding off this and selectively taking pot shots at everything.
    FAS was one of the first, Uni’s turn next…….

    Public expectations is another where the most contradictory values and outcomes are seen as mutually inclusive.

    I seem the beginings of a managised coup in third level where assets will be placed in a system where innovation will be quashed, standards at both extremes harmonised to a lower than existing standard, and metrics to establish control, will reduce claims we make internationally about ourselves that are normally questionable ultimately ridiculous.

    Education is not a product, it is the most human of things where one who knows X shares with those who dont. This can be a dry or emotional, transitory or fixed, drilled or individualistic, implicit or explicit, confessional or triumphant as an experience.

    I seriously doubt that a system of management can assetise this. Something is coming down the road,., and I hope we can all pay lip service to it, and no more.

  10. […] Heigh ho, it’s off to work we go – truly! (via University Blog) September 26, 2010 Shane O'Mara Leave a comment Go to comments I wonder how this would look. Let us imagine that we were to organise a meeting of academics, to which we would invite four or five politicians. The purpose of the meeting would be to get an understanding of how politicians carry out their work. We might ask them how long, on average, they attend the parliamentary debating chamber, and at what time they start. We might ask about how many hours they would spend there before heading off to the bar. … Read More […]

  11. […] search of the working week In a post last week I looked at the hearings that had just taken place before the Oireachtas (Irish […]

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