Academic working hours, spent at the place of work

As the academic profession continues to come under scrutiny, one traditional condition of a lecturer’s employment is being called into question: the freedom to decide how to arrange the working day, and where to do the work. It is universally accepted (leaving aside a tiny minority who might argue otherwise) that a lecturer is bound to be present to deliver his or her teaching and to provide support, advice and feedback to students; and to attend meetings and events at which they are supposed to be present. But for the rest of the working day, traditionally it was seen as acceptable for an academic to do the work (such as reading, marking or doing research) at a location to suit the lecturer, including their home.

Current discussions on new terms and conditions of employment have included the prospect that, in future, academics will have to be on the campus for the full working day. It is easy to see why this might be sought: to provide a higher level of transparency about the working day, and to ensure that a lecturer in available in a consistent manner when he or she might be needed to provide student support.

The problem is, however, that such a tightening of employment conditions removes, or has the potential to remove, a significant amount of the goodwill that keeps academics working beyond anyone’s concept of a working week. It could therefore lower academic productivity.

I would confess to feeling a sense of regret that this aspect of academic autonomy is now endangered. But academics also need to bear in mind that their flexible working conditions have been loudly misinterpreted, and that they have contributed to a widespread view that the entire profession, pretty much, under-performs. For that reason, those negotiating on their behalf should aim to find a compromise under which students have better and fuller opportunities to seek out academics, while at the same time preserving at least some of the operational independence of faculty. Simply resisting all change in this regard is likely to be counter-productive. But ending all flexibility could well contribute to a new academic profession which is less productive and less enterprising. It is important to get this balance right.

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36 Comments on “Academic working hours, spent at the place of work”

  1. Trevor Says:

    In relation to communication: the idea that being physically located in an office on campus makes a lecturer more available to students is daft. All a lecturer has to do is turn the lock and ignore callers. Making one sit there all day will not make an inaccessible academic suddenly accessible. In the age of smart phones and instant communication, students generally prefer to get quick answers to their queries. My students can contact me on my mobile phone (they all have my number), by email (which I read on my phone) and if they choose, via twitter or facebook (they rarely use these options). This is where teacher:student communication is at today.

    Similarly, if the ‘powers that be’ think that coercing an academic to sit in his/her office all day is going to improve productivity they are deluded. Intelligent talented people don’t respond to such treatment – at least, not positively.

    I chose to work in third level because the freedom it allows suits the way I like to work. Forcing people like me to work to some artificial schedule so the bean counters can tick a box is shortsighted and counterproductive. Ultimately, everyone working in third level knows it’s unenforcible.
    Trevor

  2. Ernie Ball Says:

    Agree entirely with Trevor. Moreover it seems to have been lost on the bright sparks in the IUA that nobody else does this. I know of no place in the world where academics are forced to clock in. What do you think such a measure will do to Ireland’s ability to compete internationally for academic talent and what effect will it have on the quality of education and research? Do you think this island is such an attractive place for an academic to move to that it will somehow outweigh such lousy conditions (especially when combined with declining pay and irrational public hostility)?

    Honestly, does anyone in the IUA have even a tiny measure of foresight?

  3. Dan Says:

    Do we want our academics to work hard, teach well, publish books and papers of top quality, organise and lecture at international conferences, contribute to national and international bodies, lecture to local societies and community groups in the evening, work on grant applications and establish research projects, supervise PhDs, go abroad to serve as external examiners of undergraduate courses and PhDs?

    If we want this, then we need people to work into the evenings, over weekends and to often travel abroad and spend time away from their homes and families, often putting their hands in their own pockets for the costs of travel and accommodation.

    • Dan Says:

      My point is obvious: we can either appoint highly qualified, hard-working and ambitious people who take it as a given, that if they have the privilege and responsibility of an academic position, then they would expect to ALWAYS potentially be ‘at work’.

      OR we can expect them to be at their desks 9-5, five days a week – and we can record that in time sheets, but then we can forget about colleagues emailing each other at 8pm on a Sunday evening about their jobs. Which do we want?

  4. Ernie Ball Says:

    Also, newsflash: students don’t want more access to lecturers. Given a choice between asking a question in an office hour or by email, they’ll choose email 99 times out of 100 (no matter how approachable the lecturer is). My colleagues and I dutifully set up office hours every semester to which students rarely show up.

    Never mind the chronic (and growing) problem of student absenteeism and disengagement which nobody wants to talk about. Instead, it’s all the lecturer’s fault:

    http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2011/01/24/does-college-make-you-smarter/no-work-all-play-equals-a-job

  5. Jilly Says:

    I find this development to be completely baffling. I quite literally cannot imagine what the IUA think they’re doing.

    Firstly, it’s bizarre that in the 21stC, anyone would propose that 9-5 in one location is the most efficient way to work. Universities are large, technologically well-developed organisations which are specifically networked to allow for communication and work across space. As Trevor points out, most student communication (as initiated by the students) outside of teaching takes place electronically. The same is true of the internal college administration done by academics. On the days when I work in college, I do 8 hours heavily interupted work. On the days I work from home, I do 10 hours concentrated work. This was meant to be the point of modern telecommunications technology, I thought?

    Secondly, if this nonsense is enacted, as FvP predicts, it will be the end of any remaining good will. I will be an example of this. If I’m required to be on campus Mon-Fri 9-5, that is all the work I will do for college. No more evening work from home, no more weekends. If many other people follow suit, universities will grind to a halt within one semester, as the work-rate will practically halve.

  6. Dan Says:

    ….And another thing,

    Ferdinand, respectfully I’d say that your post is somewhat puzzling? You present it as two different options; a) no change, leading to worsening situation in 3rd level public support or b) regretfully, some negotiated change requiring academics to be more flexible and available to students (who somehow are unable to write an email requesting an appointment).

    Here’s another option. C) The IUA properly informs itself about the quality and demonstrable achievements of its academic staff so that next time they represent the sector in front of politicians, they can say “when you appoint intelligent, self driven and highly qualified staff and trust them, these are the achievements that you can expect”.

    • anna notaro Says:

      Expressing ‘regret…that this aspect of academic autonomy is now endangered’ and accepting ‘compromise’ because academics’ ‘flexible working conditions have been loudly misinterpreted’ is indeed puzzling! If our working conditions have been misinterpreted we need to explain better to the wider public the very good reasons why they need to be so ‘flexible’ (particularly so in the 21st century!) instead of aiming towards compromises which undermine the same nature of our profession..

      • Dan Says:

        Absolutely, that’s precisely the premise of Ferdinand’s post, welcome as it is, that starts us all from the wrong place (“if I was going there, I wouldn’t start from here at all”).

        …but another thing, it’s not only the IUA that is seriously damaging the trust the underpins academic performance, it has to be admitted that academics themselves aren’t explaining themselves well either. I have to admit that the recent communications display little sense of PR. Most members of the public would regard ‘academic freedom’ with mistrust, because it hasn’t been explained well.

        Similarity, flexibility of work practices could be understood by the public as merely indicating a lack of “accountability”. We – and particularly those that represent us in public debates – need to explain carefully, with case studies, what it is that academics do, what they can achieve if they are let and the incredible value of their work to society.


    • I think my point is that an approach that simply says ‘hands off our working conditions’ will reinforce the (incorrect) view that academics want to be unaccountable – which is provocative in the current climate. I do actually agree that flexible working conditions are a hugely important part of what brings about high quality academic work, and I would be emphatically against a 9 to 5 ‘clocking in’ framework. But we may need to find a way of explaining this better to the wider public. Otherwise we may be punished by the politicians.

      I do agree however with the drift of the responses to this post.

  7. Al Says:

    One would have to admit there is a slice of mob mentality in the media with regard to scapegoats: fas, etc, for the national situation. The media will move on to other things.
    I don’t buy into this false imperative that we have to go out into the world and preach our worth.
    If the IUA best attempt at managing its academic talent is to put it behind a desk then what hope has the smart economy programme?

  8. mjp6034 Says:

    I used to be an academic and now work in the commercial sector. My current employer allows me the same freedoms as academics have, namely when I’m not required to be at a specific event or meeting I can choose to work wherever I want. This is not necessarily because I have fantastically generous employer, it is simply because modern work is different to that of Ford’s factory and a culture of ‘presenteeism’ is ultimately counter productive for the reasons you mention. Namely people will quite literally clock in, fulfilling the terms of their contract, and then watch the clock down until they can clock out again. The amount of academic work which goes on at weekends, evenings and holidays could never be properly quantified, but it is huge and if university senior management want to negotiate contracts which jeopardise this, then they are being foolish.

  9. no-name Says:

    Hmm. It seems to me that academics employed in Ireland are taking the negative, and largely false, criticism levelled at them by politicians and the media lying down. If there are academics out there trying to counter the now widespread belief that they are work-shy and overpaid, it hasn’t come to my attention. It’s easy to enforce such working conditions on people who do not make much (if any) attempt to make their side of the argument known, let alone retaliate. Sitting ducks spring to mind.

    • Jilly Says:

      no-name, do you have any suggestions as to how this ‘message’ is to be got out there? There are campaigns, public meetings and publications supporting it which have received relatively high media coverage. But beyond that, and particularly in terms of mainstream media discussion, academics like all others only get the coverage the journalists choose to give. And in modern media (especially newspapers) those journalists tend to choose the cheaper and easier option of reprinting government and political party press releases (almost word for word in many cases) over the more time-consuming and difficult option of actually doing some investigation and seeking out the input of more than just the loudest voice.

      But beyond that, I do take issue with the idea that it is in some way my responsibility to mount a public relations campaign to prove that I’m doing my job, and doing it well. Surely it’s my job to just do my job? I’m getting very tired of the idea that I have some responsibility to both do my job AND simultaneously convince those who largely speaking cannot be bothered to seek out information that I’m doing my job.

      If it’s anyone’s job to convince others that I and my colleagues are doing our jobs, it’s…the IUA…Oh, right….

  10. no-name Says:

    Jilly, I understand your frustration, but I’m afraid that I cannot agree with you this time. You state that if the proposed measure is introduced you will THEN take action that you think will bring the university sector to its knees, “If I’m required to be on campus Mon-Fri 9-5, that is all the work I will do for college. No more evening work from home, no more weekends. If many other people follow suit, universities will grind to a halt within one semester, as the work-rate will practically halve.” (By the way, you asked above how I thought academics could make their roles clear to the public. I think you have answered this here yourself. What is the point in claiming that you will stand up and be counted AFTER the horse has already bolted? If you think that you and your colleagues have the power to protect yourselves why don’t you lead the way now, before it’s too late? At least then you will have, in my eyes anyway, earned the right to complain, if unsuccessful.

    Also, if you really believe that it is your job just to do your job, as you put it, doesn’t it follow that you should quietly accept any imposed measures? Those measures will be part and parcel of your job.

    You point out that you are, “getting very tired of the idea that I have some responsibility to both do my job AND simultaneously convince those who largely speaking cannot be bothered to seek out information that I’m doing my job. If you consider it too much effort to look after your own best interests how can you expect other people to do that for you? Perhaps those people of whom you speak have the same attitude as you, i.e., it’s not their job to find out about your job so why should they bother?

    I do hope that the matter will be resolved to your satisfaction, but my point is that you (in the sense of academics) should be doing soemthing productive to make that happen. Complaining on wordpress won’t sway the decision makers.

    • Jilly Says:

      no-name – in many respects, I entirely agree with you, and your position here is being voiced with increasing force by many of my colleagues (and sometimes by me).

      However, another part of me won’t do this because of one of the most important aspects of academic life: its vocational aspect. I recoil from taking action which will damage my students’ education, or will damage my discipline. I’ll anticipate your point that this is happening anyway because of measures such as those in the IUA statement, and concede the point. But it’s really really hard to bring ourselves to take actions such as these, as they go against the very principles which brought us into the profession.

      Having said all of which, I do agree with you. If that makes any sense…

  11. iainmacl Says:

    maybe it’s just part of the ‘catching up’ mentality of the irish ruling classes. Tackling 21st Century challenges via early 20th Century processes. clock-in, clock-out isn’t just dispiriting for academics it is too for everyone else that has to do it. Almost a guaranteed way of reducing productivity across the board, remind everyone that they are simply expendable, redeployable generic work units.

    The fact that we’re having this debate on a Sunday, says it all. Will I be in breach of the new working conditions since its outside the normal working week? Eek.

  12. otto Says:

    We had this discussion before – see otto’s comments at https://universitydiary.wordpress.com/2010/12/19/terms-and-conditions-of-employment-in-irish-higher-education/ – and – with respect, FvP – you dont seem very responsive to the points raised in previous discussion. Rather you seem to have internalised the idea that something very stupid must be done because people are demanding that something very stupid must be done.

    The proposal to monitor academic staff’s hours or make them work in the office is not “international best practice”. There is no evidence that it will bring improvements. It will make it difficult to hire and recruit at a time when we are having to look more to non-pecuniary incentives for academics to come to Ireland for teaching and research, and in an environment where people who have previously taught in the US *already* find the work environment here over-bureaucratic and time-wasting (it is one reason they give for leaving). This is a bad, bad idea, even in ‘compromise’ form, which is why the only defense of it offered is that the environment may demand it.

    There are many other reforms which may be good ideas, like e.g. publishing all teaching evaluations, making promotion more dependent on research, requiring approval to receive annual increments, increasing actual time in the classroom etc etc. No doubt you can think of more. But the external environment must be responded to by reforms that actually improve Ireland as a place to do research and teaching, not by reforms that do the opposite.


    • Otto, at no point have I advocated any ‘proposal to monitor academic staff’s hours or make them work in the office’. In fact, the whole gist of my post (and my earlier response to another comment, see above) is that we must avoid this. However, we must do so in a way that engages the wider public and persuades them that all the chatter about under=performance is wrong. Doing that is in no way stupid, in large part because not doing it will probably lead to further dramatic bureaucratic measures and also funding cuts. Have you read some of the stuff being said by Fine Gael and Labour frontbench spokespersons?

      • otto Says:

        [Pl forgive double-posting: this comment should be here.]

        Some of the stuff being said must just be resisted as counterproductive, just as other stuff might be welcomed, or even doubled-down on, as productive, in order to take the best of the public discussion and make something profitable from it.

        And the “whole gist” of your comments both here and last time is that partial accommodation on this point is necessary – indeed you advocate it. That is what I take you to mean the word ‘some’ in “preserving at least some of the operational independence of faculty” and your suggestion the last time this came up that “staff resistance to the collation of such information [about working hours]” was unwise. So I find your irritation on this point surprising.


        • Otto, I am absolutely never irritated: debate is always a good thing, and no contribution ever annoys me. Well, almost none…🙂

          The word ‘some’ is meant tom indicate that academics cannot be *totally* autonomous; for example, they cannot refuse to turn up for lectures. We should err on the side of autonomy, but we need to be able to demonstrate that this is as productive as we claim it is.

          Recently when I addressed a public meeting on this issue, and said that academics in fact work exceptionally hard, a very senior and very well known academic in the room (not a university manager of any kind) loudly shouted ‘Rubbish: about a third are totally workshy’. You could immediately tell which of us was believed by the rest of the audience. This is the problem we face.

          By the way, collating information about what staff do is a totally different matter. If we are determined to shoot ourselves in the feet, we should refuse to gather it.

          • otto Says:

            Not sure I agree with you, FvP. Of course academics have never been totally autonomous, as you say, but your “some” above clearly referred to “less than currently”. I’m a bit surprised that you are backing away from forthrightly advocating what you were and are in fact advocating, albeit somewhat crabwise. There’s no reason for any move to “less than currently” in terms of monitoring of hours worked or time in the office. To repeat: to do so would not improve universities nor match international best practice (rather: the reverse). As for the problem of e.g. workshy academics, there are other elements e.g. publishing teaching evaluations, which would help much more i.e. respond to the problem in question.

            “By the way, collating information about what staff do is a totally different matter. If we are determined to shoot ourselves in the feet, we should refuse to gather it.”

            I really doubt it. If the result of collating the information is to only to increase the pressure for very counterproductive policies then indeed it should be resisted. There are many ways to gather information about what staff do – publishing their publication records would be one – but “gathering information” about hours worked/hours in the office is just setting ourselves up for “control and monitoring” of hours worked/hours in the office, with all the nonsense that would come with that. So it may be better to balk at the start, while, as I have suggested, being more accommodating on other issues.

          • wendymr Says:

            Otto, I don’t agree that the collation of data on working hours is a bad idea – in fact, I agree entirely with Ferdinand that refusing to collect it simply plays into the hands of those who want to portray academics as lazy, workshy individuals who want to protect their status as above any kind of employer monitoring of their work.

            In the UK, in the 1990s, the AUT conducted a workload study among academics. The results won’t surprise anyone in this discussion: the average working week was, I think something like 56 hours (I can’t remember exactly and don’t have time to look it up). The research also showed significant numbers working in excess of 60 hours per week. Yes, it told us nothing we didn’t already know – but we weren’t the intended audience. For the first time, there was hard, research-based evidence about academic workloads.

            I commented in a previous discussion in this forum – perhaps the very one you refer to, Otto – that when workload monitoring systems emerged in UK universities in the late 1990s my own department decided to cooperate because of the very simple reason that we knew it would reveal the excessive working hours we all put in. Yes, management may well have had a different agenda for requiring collection of this data, but we had nothing to hide and were confident that the information couldn’t be used against us in any way – because, if the data shows we’re all working 55+ hours per week, with a pretty even spread across teaching/marking, admin and research, how could it be argued that we weren’t working hard enough?

            Of course, there are workload measurement schemes that are just ludicrous and increase workload further, such as those that demand individuals account for every 15 minutes (or even every 5 minutes) of every working day. So I would argue that the role of academics (and their unions) should not be to stand on the picket-line flatly refusing to participate in workload measurement, but to work with university managers to come up with a measurement mechanism that is meaningful and doesn’t create additional work that’s disproportionate to its usefulness. And, if Ferdinand’s a typical example, I’d suspect that most university managements know the kind of hours their staff work, and also want to be able to prove this to a suspicious and hostile outside world.

            As for the IUA, I’d love to know who they’re actually speaking for.

  13. John Says:

    Didn’t the East Germans have a very effective system for monitoring what people were up to?

    Perhaps HEA could grant themselves an exemption to the employment control framework and recruit a few hundred employment control agents? Job done.

  14. otto Says:

    I’ll say one more thing. The idea that remedies must respond to real problems is never more relevant to Ireland than now. Read for example Colm McCarthy in today’s independent – http://www.independent.ie/opinion/analysis/european-banking-system-needs-redesign-to-prevent-another-crisis-2537991.html – where he argues (convincingly, at least to me) that the most recent proposals for reforms to the Eurozone governance area are not in fact responsive to the causes of the Eurozone financial crisis.

    If so, it would be a bad idea to adopt these reforms, no? And the same thinking is relevant when considering other proposed reforms, like such as the ones you discuss above…


    • ‘The idea that remedies must respond to real problems is never more relevant to Ireland than now’. Yes, I do agree with that.

      • otto Says:

        Some of the stuff being said must just be resisted as counterproductive, just as other stuff might be welcomed, or even doubled-down on, as productive, in order to take the best of the public discussion and make something profitable from it.

        And the “gist” of your comments both here and last time is that partial accommodation on this point is necessary – indeed you advocate it. That is what I take you to mean the word ‘some’ in “preserving at least some of the operational independence of faculty” and your suggestion the last time this came up that “staff resistance to the collation of such information [about working hours]” was unwise.

      • otto Says:

        “‘The idea that remedies must respond to real problems is never more relevant to Ireland than now’. Yes, I do agree with that.”

        Then apply it to what you are suggesting above.

  15. Kevin O'Rourke Says:

    Will this mean that we will be eligible for overtime?🙂

  16. otto Says:

    wendymr:
    Once again this seems to be an example of internalizing the apparent benefits of a bad system only by comparison with a hypothetically even worse one. Yes, of course, “there are workload measurement schemes that are just ludicrous and increase workload further, such as those that demand individuals account for every 15 minutes (or even every 5 minutes) of every working day” – and, of course, for exactly the same reason, the same is true for any attempt to do the same on an hourly or daily basis, because of the administrative burden involved, the checking that it was accurate etc. There are no advantages to this system at all, which is why leading international universities do not use it – indeed, would laugh at the thought that they would benefit from using it. Instead, measure outputs like research, teaching evaluations etc.

    A once-off ‘survey’ of staff’s weekly workload would of course be fine in normal circumstances. In the current environment, however, such a survey process would likely enable a step on towards regular worktime and office attendance monitoring of the sort that FvP seems to be willing to appease or compromise with.

    • wendymr Says:

      And you really think that resisting this kind of exercise will not lead to a massive step in that direction?

      • otto Says:

        Why not? Since there is no evidence that there is any benefit whatsoever from this sort of policy, and it will actually make international recruitment much worse, potentially permanently, it’s the sort of thing that should be resisted in negotiations. As I have said, this should be done in a context where many other things, which will in fact lead to real improvements, are put forward as proposals for reform.

  17. sapphire Says:

    wendymr said
    “As for the IUA, I’d love to know who they’re actually speaking for.”

    Me too. Their website says “We are the representative body for Ireland’s seven universities.”

    Was it set up by government? Who is behind it?

    The IUA is a registered limited company.


    • The Irish Universities Association began its life as the Conference of Heads of Irish Universities (CHIU), and changed to the IUA in 2005. Its Council consists of the seven university presidents, but it also has a number of committees made up usually of other university officers – such as Registrars, Directors of Finance, and so forth. It represents universities in terms of their overall organizational interests. In the UK the equivalent is Universities UK (UUK).

      The IUA is a company limited by guarantee, and the directors are the presidents. It has a chief executive, Ned Costello.

      • Dan Says:

        So, would it not be more accurate to state that the IUA is “representative of some members of senior management”, rather than the “representative body for the seven Universities?”

        Do the recent controversies not indicate in fact how unrepresentative the IUA actually is?

  18. Jo McCafferty Says:

    There may be a few academics out there who abuse their flexible working conditions, but I haven’t met very many.

    If I were made to be in the office full-time 9-5 I would not be able to do my job properly, and it will be worse soon when we shift campus to an open plan office.

    Can’t wait for everyone in my vicinity to be driven “postal” by my constant Skype conferencing, international calls to students with a nasty connection, teaching online, demanding everyone else be quiet while I do so.

    Am I supposed to be in the office at 3am when talking to my students across the world? Funnily enough, the doors are locked til 7am…

    If universities had ideal office working conditions, then perhaps it might be feasable.

    Yes, I can see the desire for “powers that be” for clarity, however, there are different facets to university work and I think it might only work for full-time students present at the university. Even then I’m not really sure about the notion.

    I’m sorry for making this such a personal post but none of my students are on campus. Only half of them are even in the UK. So what’s the point in me sitting in my office from 9-5 when the majority of my students won’t “clock in” til the wee small hours?

    Every three months or so, i have to fill in a form telling “the powers that be” my teaching hours, which classes etc etc. I don’t hear them complaining when my tally comes in at almost twice what it’s supposed to be!

    Dumb thing is, I absolutely love my job, and I have no problem putting in silly hours, because to me , it’s more than just a job. I don’t mind working more hours, but crucially, only if I can work those hours my way.


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