In search of the working week

In a post last week I looked at the hearings that had just taken place before the Oireachtas (Irish Parliament) Public Accounts Committee, in which university presidents had been questioned about the financial management of their institutions. Much of the media coverage has concerned the payment of bonuses or other benefits to senior and middle managers in University College Dublin. While I shall make a short comment on this in a particular context in a moment, I think that the more important exchanges – and as I noted last week, the more absurd ones – focused on academic working practices.

The whole thing is now published on the Oireachtas website, and can be found here. But I am now going to quote specifically from page 5 of the report, and in fact it is maybe instructive to set out the exchanges between Róisín Shortall TD and others. I am sorry about the length of this quote, but it is worth reading in full. For those perhaps not familiar with the dramatis personae, they are  Ms Shortall herself, Ned Costello (the chief executive of the Irish Universities Association, representing the universities), the Committee chairman Bernard Allen TD, John Hughes (outgoing President of NUI Maynooth), and Michael Murphy (President of University College Cork). Anyway, here it is:

Deputy Róisín Shortall: Most workers have to do a minimum number of hours. I am asking if there any system in place to ensure that university staff do a minimum number of hours. That is a reasonable question.

Mr. Ned Costello: The work is monitored to ensure it is done. The work requires at least the normal working week to undertake.

Deputy Róisín Shortall: How many hours is a person required to work? What is the minimum number of hours?

Mr. Ned Costello: There is not a minimum requirement.

Deputy Róisín Shortall: There is not a minimum requirement.

Mr. Ned Costello: Indeed, in the other part of the higher education—–

Deputy Róisín Shortall: How then does one measure a person’s performance?

Mr. Ned Costello: The difficulty is that if one looks at the other part of the higher education sector, the institutes of technology sector, there is a minimum number of hours. With respect to my colleagues in that sector, that has tended to become a floor to which people work down. The benefit of not having a minimum number of hours is that there are reciprocal benefits.

Deputy Róisín Shortall: I am at a loss to know how Mr. Costello can possibly—–

Chairman: I am at a loss too because Mr. Costello is being very vague. How many contact hours—–

Mr. Ned Costello: Maybe I will pass over to some of my colleagues who—–

Professor John G. Hughes: Perhaps I can make a comment as a president. The universities all have a performance management development system in place where each member of staff is appraised on an annual basis in terms of their outputs, research, teaching and so on. We are also engaged in putting in place workload models right across all the universities. Recently, as part of that exercise, my university of NUI Maynooth did a fairly detailed study of the workload currently being experienced by academic staff members. We came to the figure that the average academic in NUI Maynooth is working 59 hours per week, which is of serious concern to me because I am responsible for their health and safety. That is not untypical in the current university environment where we are working with student-staff ratios of nearly 30:1.Deputy Róisín Shortall: We do not know whether it is typical or not because there is no measurement there.

Professor John G. Hughes: We are putting in place the measurements and we have—–

Deputy Róisín Shortall: A situation where a person is given a very well paid job without any stipulation about the minimum number of hours required to be worked seems to be extraordinary. Does Mr. Boland have any view on that?

Chairman: Dr. Murphy has indicated—–

Dr. Michael Murphy: Might I make some comments on that and provide some evidence? In 2008 we conducted a review of contact hours. We have a policy that academic staff should exhibit not less than 150 contact hours of teaching. The average established for the institution was over 180. In one of the colleges, medicine and health, it was 280. In the past year, we have also conducted an extensive review of research output where we invited 120 international experts in 16 panels to examine everything being conducted across the university under the research heading. As I recall, 12 of the 16 international panels made the observation that the teaching loads they saw being exhibited by UCC academics, although I think the picture is common, far exceeded the norms in their institutions across the world.

I reiterate the comment made by Professor Hughes that I believe there is far greater risk to the institutions in counting the hours which will place us in breach of our legal obligations with regard to the number of hours staff should not exceed. That should be seriously considered when we are addressing this matter in the coming year.

Deputy Róisín Shortall: It is not adequate just to review and to report back to us. There should be a minium expectation on staff. Dr. Murphy said he found that staff had a 180 contact hours.

Professor John G. Hughes: The reported average figure for the institution was 180 contact hours.

Deputy Róisín Shortall: Over how many weeks?

Dr. Michael Murphy: That is over the teaching year.

Deputy Róisín Shortall: Say 30 weeks. Would that be—–

Dr. Michael Murphy: For us that is 24 weeks plus—–

Deputy Róisín Shortall: Some 30 weeks. That is six hours per week.

Dr. Michael Murphy: The Deputy must always remember—–

Deputy Róisín Shortall: In terms of the 40-40-20 referred to earlier, if six hours is 40% of the week, we are talking about the full week being 15 hours.

This whole exchange is extraordinary, and I’ll avoid giving it an adjective that might be unnceessarily insulting or provocative. But it does not appear to have occurred to anyone involved in this exchange that there was something bizarre about a politician (who does not exactly have minimum working hours) insisting that everyone must have a minimum working week. I also cannot help feeling that the presidents didn’t play their cards well in this exchange, allowing it to focus on ‘contact hours’ as an indicator of the working week and getting sucked into meaningless metrics.

If there is an issue about staff availability for student teaching and support, the answer to this would not be to impose minimum working hours for academics, but to create a student entitlement for a minimum number of hours of staff time.

This whole session of the Public Accounts Committee was potentially very damaging to higher education, as it appears to have allowed the politicians to claim that universities were not being well managed. The outcome of such exchanges may turn out to be an assault on university autonomy, and no matter how much academics might dislike this or that group of management in a university, they are unlikely to find it better when everything is run and strategies are determined by civil servants; that may be the way we are heading.

As for the special payments and bonuses, I avoided these in DCU exactly because I feared that we might get sucked into this kind of debate. However, it is absurd that universities should be prevented from making payments to staff for taking on additional functions. This should be a matter for each university, with the obligation not to spend money that they do not have, but to be free to allocate funds as necessary within budgets. The current framework in Ireland makes no sense whatsoever.

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8 Comments on “In search of the working week”

  1. Vincent Says:

    The smart guys got played. It’s that simple. And what’s more they deserved it for attempting to tag-team her.
    Further in an attempt at crass sophism to her first question when the answer is a plain No, they spent the next ten minutes trying to explain why her question should not have been asked.
    By the way, what they, the PAC, are after is similar clocking that way they have to do. And honestly I see little reason why ‘not’ hold a fob to a reader when getting the mail, or when entering or leaving the car-park.

  2. NiallM Says:

    I see nothing wrong with Deputy Shortall’s logic, just the data. Six hours of lectures per week is typical. Most people agree it takes about 3 hours of preparation for one hour of class (probably more if one counts time spent grading, giving feedback, preparing labs and problem sets, setting exams, etc).
    So that is 24 hours per week dedicated to teaching. If this accounts for 40% of the working week, then a typical working week is 60 hours, which sounds about right.

    But the real questions are
    – is it reasonable to measure the hours spent per week working as an academic?
    – can such measurements be done without taking up too many of the 161 hours per week that we (like to say we) work?
    If the answer to both questions is “yes”, when what is the problem? If not, is it because we are contracted to do a job (teaching, do research), and not to be clocked-in for 39 hours per week for 48 weeks per year?

  3. Fiona Says:

    At some point last year someone (was it IFUT?) had people fill out time audits showing how their time is allocated during their working week; unsurprisingly it tended to break down along the 40:40:20 split. It didn’t, as far as I remember, ask for a total number of hours. Out of complete frustration with this kind of exchange I counted my hours last week. It was not an irregular week: I had some teaching, office hours, three committee/staff meetings, and two PhD supervision meetings. I am in the course of finishing a book but not in the ‘absolutely nuts final push’ stage. My total hours were 65 from Monday-Friday, from which we can take off maybe 5 for coffee/chatting/messing around so let’s call it 60. Weekend hours were 5 on Saturday and 3 on Sunday. So 68 hours. Not too shabby. By the way, I felt last week that it was one of my somewhat lighter weeks because I was finishing work around 6/6.30 every day and not working late at night (unless you count checking and answering emails on the phone, in which case it never ends). I am in no way abnormal as a relatively young, junior, academic. My working hours would realistically be LIGHTER than people who hold professorial appointments. There might be some layabouts, but they exist in every workplace including Deputy Shortall’s own. I am not trying to say my life is awful or I work too much: I LOVE my job. I can’t imagine ever doing anything else and I can’t imagine working less than I do because it’s something I really enjoy doing. I recognise I am lucky in that.

    I do think it’s reasonable to measure what we work and to tell people who are paying us how much we generally work. We should also tell them what we actually DO; including but not restricted to teaching. We are well paid; people are entitled to know what we’re being paid for. But people who think we only work when in the lecture hall, and that we have summers off (aagghhh!!!) should be disabused of these views. And indeed told how the whole structure of the profession is designed against it (promotion structures, in particular from L to SL).

  4. Al Says:

    I posted this over on Irish economy last week:

    Ms Shorthall gets a quote in the paper and a kick at a ‘priviledged group’ and presents herself as an advocate for two groups: parents and students.
    Win, win and win for her?

    I have to object to this:

    “She said the matter was of considerable concern to parents and was dispiriting for students who expected to be challenged at university, but were finding themselves with only six or eight hours of lectures a week.”

    If shows a severe ignorance of what higher education is and in what direction it seeks to propel the student, and a valorisation of student/parent expectations over academic standards apparently.

    I am concerned that there is a move towards some form of management of academic resources that may will cause serious damage to the whole sector.

    If our potential future Minister of Education’s main concern is with some form of on campus parenting by academics then there are interesting times ahead.

    There is a duty for academics to explain their time commitments to the job a little better as it seems easy for the media to whip the whole higher education thing. It looks like the bosses didnt set the record straight for the TDs either.
    Ferdinands point at Heads lecturing to keep the feet on the ground makes sense in this regard.

  5. Pat Says:

    Like others here, I work at least 60 hours per week during term, and usually about 40 hours per week outside term. I rarely get more than 12 days off during the calendar year, and work most weekends and bank holidays. Like others, I was very offended by the comments made by Roisin Shortall, as reported in the media and as corroborated by the transcript online.

    Something that needs to be added to this discussion is that her comments about students’ contact hours are also very damaging. I know of no course in Ireland where students are getting six hours’ lectures per week. Arts – infamously short on contact hours – is at least 12-15 hours per week, with plenty of additional work required of students in the meantime. So in addition to attacking academics, she is discrediting our courses too. Hard to see that benefiting anyone, except of course Deputy Shortall herself.

    I wrote to her to outline my problems with her remarks. Her email address is

    Let me add that I would love to clock in and out, and would also be absolutely happy for my workload to be measured, and for the figures to be made publicly available. I would also be very much in favour of creating greater opportunities for me to interact with and engage my students. And finally I am, like almost everyone else, utterly disgusted by the reports of the people in charge awarding themselves extra pay.

    • Good points, Pat – and I agree that what is being put about here as regards student access to lecturing staff is both misleading and dangerous.

      The problem for us is that a small number of students, from various universities, have been suggesting to their TDs that university lecturers don’t take an interest in them. When the university presidents met Batt O’Keeffe when he was Minister for Education, he claimed he had a postbag full of such complaints. If these do exist, they only relate to a tiny minority, but they undermine our case; which is why we do need to be seen to be addressing performance issues, however unrepresentative they are.

      That said, the kind of working week calculated by you and Fiona is absolutely typical. And that is something we need to be able to demonstrate to people like RS.

  6. Perry Share Says:

    I’m just reading the most recent NMC/EDUCAUSE Horizon Report on emergent educational technologies – or more accurately, emergent technologies that can be used in education. [Thinks: is reading this at half past midnight ‘work’?]. It alludes to mobile telephony, simple augmented reality, open content and so on and how these might be (and already are being) used in tertiary education.

    Apart from noting that reality is enough to cope with, without ‘augmenting’ it, to me this material points to the decreasing relevance and importance of ‘co-presence in the same real space as the only (real) mode of teaching’ that underpins these critiques of academic practice. In other words – teachers/learners no longer need to be in the same room at the same time!

    After all, I learn a lot from this blog (some of it even useful ;-), but I don’t need FvP or any of the other contributors to drop around to my kitchen/office/wherever to figure it out.

    I know that there was a prior post on this topic – but I think it was worth saying after reading this drivel in the I. Times today!

  7. david Says:

    I think the damage done to the University sector was done by University presidents wanting to equate themselves to industry CEOs a few years back. It is clear that as a management class there was a high degree of disfunction among University management as borne out by the revelations a few weeks back.

    This of course does not apply to the lecturers I have seen who have an extremely high work ethic. My own PhD supervisor was a case in point. A very selfless man who puts in a huge number of contact hours with students and was equally diligent in terms of preparing for every lecture.

    The most galling thing about Shorthall’s badgering is of course that our “politicians” work 30% less than their UK counterparts and get paid 20% more, ie they get paid 1.5x the hourly rate of British MPs and yet there almost 4x the number of them. This means we effectively pay 5-6x the rate per hour per head of population that citizens of the UK pay.

    BIFFO alone is paid 60k/year more than David Cameron who is head of the world’s 5th largest economy and in is in charge of a nuclear strikeforce.

    But of course BIFFO is worth it as he does a killer routine of impressions and can drink all of his overpaid party comrades under the table.

    This is the kind of wastage that Shorthall should be more concerned with.

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