Recognising hard work in higher education

OK, I shall tell this as it is. One of the most galling experiences of any university leader (or at least of this one) is to be told that academics lead an easy life and are under no pressure to work hard. It is a miserably resilient piece of horse shit, that is spread around society like manure, but of the kind that clogs the system rather than nourish it.

Those who work in universities, on the whole still, enjoy more flexible terms, meaning that they have some discretion as to how to organise their working lives. That just about still exists. But mostly, this discretion is exercised by academics (and also other university staff) in taking on far more than they should. It is a job in which you will find yourself working at any hour of the day or night. In my university it is known that I do most of my emailing at night, and I often worry that some might feel under pressure to respond at such times; I hope they know there is no such expectation. But honestly, in what other profession would you find anyone reading their work mail after midnight? How many people in other jobs accept assignments and tasks that they know when they accept them they will only be able to perform at weekends or at night or during their annual leave? And how many professionals elsewhere have to take on the chin ‘witty’ suggestions that they have five months annual holidays when they know that, if they are lucky, they’ll take three weeks?

Some years ago, in another university for which I then worked as a Dean, I recruited a young woman who had decided she would leave a very busy legal practice to become an academic, so she would have a fighting chance of seeing more of her children. Two years later she returned to the legal practice because she found her academic work was far more stressful; and this has got much worse since then.

Not every university lecturer is perfect of course. But there are many documented accounts of how the pressures of academic work affect people’s lives and, sometimes, their health. And yet, few lecturers are pleading for major change, though they may be hoping for something more sensible. But perhaps a good start would be for society to acknowledge that we have created a higher education world in which people fulfil what others might regard as unreasonable expectations, and that they deserve some recognition and respect for it. That would not be everything, but it would be a good start.

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25 Comments on “Recognising hard work in higher education”

  1. Morag McFadyen Says:

    As a lecturer and scientist who is a lark rather than an owl I wholeheartedly agree with this post. Working at weekends and answering student’s and other enquiries early morning is part of my normal working life. Although I’ve learned my lesson and no longer work the 14-16hr days I used to (last year was eye opening). I easily manage 8-9hr days (40-45hr weeks routinely) not counting the early mornings or weekends.

  2. Yes, they work hard but are they effective and efficient? Are they doing the “right” things? Working hard is not nearly as effective as working smart.

    • Ernie Ball Says:

      …and trotting out cliches isn’t nearly as effective as actual thinking.

      Never mind that what counts as “the right things” in each discipline isn’t something that some dopey administrator learns in management classes…

      Be that as it may and in case you missed it:

      • So, Ernie. I’ve started doing a bit of thinking. Nothing too taxing. Who says what is the right things for academics to do? Is there evidence that they are effective? By the way, I’m a lecturer – I have no intention of defending public service administrators.

        • Ernie Ball Says:

          Those who are expert in their fields are best placed (obviously) to determine the “right things to be done.” That is part of what “expertise” means.

          • trust me! i’m a doctor. Hmmm.

          • Ernie Ball Says:

            No, you’re right: trust no one. Or, rather, trust the professional administrators…

          • Trust no-one? So you agree that everyone’s work should be subject to supervision. Even an academic? Fair enough. I presume that would include what they work on and how they work. I must check the union position on that as well as the principles of academic freedom.

          • Ernie Ball Says:

            Silly me, I forgot that your irony-detecting faculty was destroyed.

          • Apologies, Ernie. I think I’m up with you now. Only academics can be trusted because they’re experts. Have I got it right now? Correct me if I’m still missing the point. I don’t have a university job.

        • Ernie Ball Says:

          Oh, and “working smart” is an intolerable solecism. That an academic is apparently not embarrassed to write such a thing speaks volumes.

          • Ernie. I had to look up “solecism” as my literary education is a bit limited. I found this here:
            1: an ungrammatical combination of words in a sentence; also : a minor blunder in speech
            2 : something deviating from the proper, normal, or accepted order
            3: a breach of etiquette or decorum

            If it’s the first, sorry about that. As i say my education is limited. (Mostly logic and the scientific method – you know the way).

            If it is one of the others – I’d be sort of flattered. (If that’s not bad grammar)

  3. Anna Notaro Says:

    *But honestly, in what other profession would you find anyone reading their work mail after midnight? How many people in other jobs accept assignments and tasks that they know when they accept them they will only be able to perform at weekends or at night or during their annual leave?*
    Actually that is not entirely correct, universities are just part of that digital economy where the divide between leisure time and work has vanished (see Digital Labor: The Internet as Playground and Factory

    More specifically to academia we overwork, as Kate Bowles puts in her latest blog post “because the current culture in universities is brutally and deliberately invested in shaming those who don’t compete effectively; as a correlative to this we are starting to value and promote to leadership roles people who really do believe in the dodgeball triumphalism of university rankings as a way of nurturing educational values and critical inquiry”. (, if that were not enough we also tell ourselves stories, i.e. “that the boundarylessness of our time and service is a privilege and even a practice of freedom”. Doing what we love, out of a sense of *vocation* (a term often associated to academic practice) has become some kind of mantra, only as Miya Tokumitsu warns us “it leads not to salvation, but to the devaluation of actual work”, and to exploitation (see

    Of course there might be so many other personal motives as to why people overwork, in academia and elsewhere, one popular joke among psychotherapists is that workaholics don’t like to go back home to their families, also work is perfect to sublimate desires and so forth.

    To *really* tell this as it is when it comes to recognition of hard work in HE, before expecting such recognition to come from society, as today’s post argues, we should first put our own house in order, this means making sure that proper rewards mechanisms are in place, that talent is duly recognised, that pay is fair, that our productivity is *measured* according to criteria which are reasonable and not fictional. Only then our expectations would be justified.

    • iainmacl Says:

      hear, hear.

    • Actually, Anna, I may not agree absolutely with this. Universities are the places they are in part because they are responding, however inappropriately sometimes, to perceived social, political, economic and cultural pressures. Before the institutions change what they do, theory need top have a different environment to encourage and support that.

      Universities (or their managements) didn’t decide to have bureaucratic controls, targets, assessments and so forth. They responded to them. The change needs to happen in society, which no lounger recognises the value of the academy, despite benefiting hugely from it.

      Mind you, I’m not suggesting university managements couldn’t do better.

      • Anna Notaro Says:

        Yes, I do appreciate that universities have to respond to such *perceived* pressures (perceptions can be mistaken, of course), they have done so for centuries, what it’s key for me is the shape and form that such response has taken particularly over the past twenty years or so, often too willing to comply, to compromise, to avoid frictions, to apply bizarre models of accountability, the perfect disfunctional relationship! Change must come from within academia, we need to lead by example, each of us, waiting for it to happen in society only means avoiding our responsibility by accepting the status quo, after all we ARE society also.

      • Kate Says:

        Hello both

        It looks like the ethical challenge for university management at the moment is to negotiate between the upstream ranking instruments and their perceived valency in government and business circles, and the lives of the people who work in universities under their care. If productivity is a measure of institutional value, and perhaps even institutional survival in a very tough economy, then what responsible university VC or even middle manager could counsel staff against personal practices that ultimately increase productivity? Especially if the VC is modelling those practices too.

        At the moment, the evidence is that VCs aren’t entirely resisting this temptation, hence all the high-fiving and attract-and-retain bonuses for professorial star performers who bulk up research quantum. But this isn’t football, let alone dodgeball. So I’d be really interested to know in practical terms what you think a VC could responsibly do in this culture, beyond writing a blog post like this? What do you do?

        • Thank you, Kate. There are some things we can do, making use of whatever platform and control room we have access to. Some of that is about setting the tone, and ensuring that decision-making processes use reasonable (and humane) criteria. Some of it is about showing sense in other contexts: in my case, to a point at least, the review of Scottish higher education governance that I chaired. Step by step.

        • Ernie Ball Says:

          “Productivity” applied to universities is nothing more than a lie and a sham. It is incumbent upon those working in universities not to pretend that this notion means anything merely because those in power are unable to see beyond economic ideology and are excessively enamoured of such notions. The role of a university is not to flatter those in power. It is to speak truth to power. And the truth in this case is: “productivity” means as little in scholarship as it does in art.

          • Kate Says:

            “The role of a university is not to flatter those in power.” Yes, so much so. But at the same time, it’s a mighty task in the current climate to get those in power to recognise that if they reduce their universities to political sycophancy, everyone loses.

            I share your views on productivity, unreservedly.

  4. Wendymr Says:

    One of the last bits of research consultancy I did before walking away from the university world was for a small group called the Work-Life Balance Centre; we conducted a study (self-selecting participants) called the 24-7 Survey. For the two years I consulted on this, academics had among the very longest working weeks, and were more likely than almost any other occupational group to have experienced periods of stress-related illness and/or to agree that if they had an alternative they would change careers. When we were doing some publicity for the report, I got laughed at by a local journalist for trying to suggest that university staff had anything but a cushy life. That’s the battle you’re up against.

    That said, I’m going to pick on just one thing you said: that you respond to your emails late at night, often after midnight. It may be nothing more than a long-standing habit, but all the same, I wonder whether leading by example by not dealing with correspondence at that sort of time might be helpful? And this goes for all administrators and senior managers whose emails have timestamps that suggest that the workday continues well into the evening. What does this say about workplace – and workaholic – culture?

  5. no-name Says:

    “I wonder whether leading by example by not dealing with correspondence at that sort of time [after midnight] might be helpful?”

    It would appear to be a strongly positive example to demonstrate through action that it is just fine to send emails when it is convenient for oneself, rather than to attempt to conform to the frequently rigid and unreasonable expectations of others.

  6. cormac Says:

    Super post Ferdinand, couldn’t agree more. I complain a lot about having to work until 10 pm every evening in order to carry out my research on top of a heavy teaching load, but the truth is my collaborators in the university sector work every bit as hard. In fact, I sometimes think university academics actually have it tougher than IoT lecturers because of the continuous pressure to score citations and research funding. In the IoT sector, research is still self-driven, thank God.
    For all academics, the big consolation is the thing itself – like a concert pianist, you wouldn’t be in this profession if you thought of it as ‘work’

  7. Niall Says:

    Long hours are not unique to higher education. Definitely, a feature of software development and the IT industry

  8. […] diagnosis has sharpened her already-acute sense of the changing nature of academia,  Ferdinand knows what really happens in the ivory […]

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