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.