Posted tagged ‘academic life’

Time to take the stress out of academic life?

October 20, 2014

Out there in what some still call the ‘real world’, there are many who will profess to believe that an academic’s life is full of relaxed days and pleasant comforts. Most of those working in the academy have known for some time that this is not so. Nor is this new: I have mentioned before in this blog that as far back as the 1990s I appointed a lecturer from an external professional legal practice background who left the university a relatively short while later because the work was too stressful.

Now there is another piece of new evidence. The Scottish education union, EIS, has conducted a survey of its members, which has come up with the following finding:

‘Teaching staff in the university sector have lower levels of wellbeing and satisfaction compared to overall scores of those working across all sectors of education. Some of the factors which contribute to lecturers’ wellbeing scores include concerns over management and leadership in their institution, as well as significant workload pressures and a lack of access to appropriate professional development.’

According to the survey results the two chief causes of stress are workloads and ‘dealing with management’.

There is no question that academics, as much as anyone else, have the right to a working environment that minimises stress and creates, to the greatest extent possible, a positive sense of opportunity and inclusion and a sense that everyone is valued and supported. But there also needs to be some recognition that stress apparently caused by management is often the result of external pressures, and in the system as a whole this requires more analysis. Universities are subject to mounting regulations, controls, targets and expectations, many of them encased in a framework of bureaucracy that maximises these pressures. It is time to look again at how all of this works, both in the system as a whole and within institutions. Stressed out and overworked university staff will not secure a world class university sector.

The casualisation of the academic profession

April 27, 2010

While searching for something completely different the other day I came across a fascinating internal document issued recently by another university, not in Ireland. The document is a guidance note for Faculty Deans, to be used by them when appointing casual academic staff. So for a start, what kind of appointments are we talking about here? The document notes that it applies where staff ‘are employed to perform work that is ad hoc, intermittent, unpredictable or involves hours that are irregular.’ You might think that this will be a fringe part of the employment portfolio of the institution. Not so, apparently, for it goes on to state that such appointments ‘now make up, at least in volume terms, the bulk of all recruitment activity’. Furthermore, the purpose of the guidance note is to ensure that the university concerned does not enter into legal commitments and responsibilities going beyond a casual and limited relationship, and that the termination of that relationship will not be subject to complexities or long notice periods.

Temporary, part-time and casual appointments are not of themselves new in academic life, and in some settings they are actually desirable. For example, they represent an effective way of bringing practitioners in as teachers on professional courses without having to turn those practitioners into permanent academics; but until now the assumption has been that such appointments are additional to and support the core work of professional academics. Also, casual appointments can provide part-time employment for people doing research degrees, or taking a sabbatical.

But right now in a number of countries the funding crisis affecting higher education is forcing institutions to alter their staffing structures fundamentally, not necessarily by design but nevertheless in an emphatic manner. The financial liability created by a permanent full-time appointment is often now unmanageable in terms of organisational risk assessment. In addition in Ireland, the ’employment control framework’ imposed on higher education by the government is actually at least for now prohibiting universities from making any permanent appointments at all; if you add to that the requirement to cuts jobs and the availability of funded early retirement, the entire structure of the academic profession is being changed, and not even in a long term process. It is almost instant, and within one academic generation universities will be quite different places unless there is a fundamental shift.

It is true that we need to be realistic. The idea of an academic profession consisting more or less entirely of long term employees in secure posts has gone and won’t return. This is not because of any malicious intent by university managements or the state, but because much more of a university’s portfolio of activities is now project-based (particularly in research) with a limited life span. Universities need to have the capacity to be much more flexible than they used to be. But on the other hand, the complete casualisation of the academic profession would have deadly consequences for both the student experience and the capacity of universities to have longer term strategic aims – quite apart from the fact that there will be, and there already is, a flight from the profession on the part of qualified younger people. Universities are not hubs of convenience that people can drift in and out of without much formality; there is no academy in that model.

The task for us now is to set out much more clearly and much more publicly what this process is and what it entails, and then plan and campaign for something more viable and offering more effective academic outputs. What we are now drifting into, without much of a fuss, is neither sustainable nor desirable. We cannot just get on with it.

Academics in a fractured community?

February 2, 2010

Yesterday I looked at the recent comments by the Minister for Education, Batt O’Keeffe TD, about academic teaching workloads. In the post I argued that politicians should not make or propose policies that are not backed by proper and credible evidence. In this case, the Minister’s comments were, as he told us, prompted by something he had been told by two ‘high profile’ academics.

Assuming that the Minister was correctly repeating the advice he had been given by the academics in question, they were telling him that university lecturers only taught four hours per week. Since this is very far indeed from the truth, why, one would want to ask, would any academics offer him such views? And indeed what were they expecting or hoping he would do with this information?

It may be – and for the purposes of yesterday’s post I had assumed it was so – that they were for whatever reason aiming to persuade him to look more closely at academic performance and to introduce measures to increase workloads, perhaps through funding mechanisms. But it is equally possible that their agenda was quite different, and that, for example, the target of their advice was the increasing focus in universities on high value research and the impact this was having on teaching. Or it may be that they were aiming at university presidents who were allowing distorted workloads to emerge in the system. Unless the Minister says more, or unless the academics who were briefing him speak up in public or are outed, we cannot know.

But their action (assuming it was as we have been told) indicates one thing that most of us know – that as universities have to grapple with funding issues and public criticisms and competing claims for their attention, the internal atmosphere increasingly resembles that of a pressure cooker and unpredictable responses and actions become possible.

At such times it is easy for those of commenting in a public forum to sound increasingly defensive, and maybe to appear to be resistant to change and reform. For myself, I have little doubt that we do need more change. But we should not embark upon this with unfounded allegations of poor performance. And those academics who undertake private briefings of key politicians should be careful that their advice does not undermine the academic community as a whole.

Over the past year or two, one of my key concerns has been that the avalanche of bad financial news as regards funding, the introduction of new controls and restrictions on university autonomy, and the drip-drip of  uninformed criticism would create such pressures and tensions within the university that it would become next to impossible to generate new ideas and new initiatives and to open up new sources of income. I also feared that it would kill of genuine intellectual debate, as people would simply become too tired and too fed up to pursue real academic discourse. I have tried – though I cannot judge with what success – to maintain a more optimistic approach in DCU.

And so I hope that in our discussions and debates, both inside the academic community and outside it, we work together to promote the opportunities and benefits that Ireland can derive from a thriving system of higher education.

Can we still enjoy university life?

February 12, 2009

Today I had a conversation with a young Irish academic who was troubled by the choice he had made of planning his career in the academic world. He had made this choice believing that he would be able to lead a life of intellectual challenge, good conversation and stimulating debates. He would see students develop their skills and would find his feet with his own research.

What was troubling him was that the reality was, in some sense, as he had hoped it would be, but there was in his words a ‘constant dark under-current’. He loved his work, he found himself being stimulated by some very bright students, and he had managed to publish his first two articles in refereed journals (the gold standard of university research output). But beyond that he felt there was doom and gloom, a sense that what he did was not appreciated by society, and the constant threat of the next bureaucratic hurdle.

I have some sympathy with this colleague. But more importantly, I think that we need to do better in motivating and supporting people like him, particularly as they embark on their careers. No matter how hostile the environment may seem to be, we must give people a sense of optimism and hope,m and we must give them the assistance of a supportive community.

I suspect that many people still believe that academic life is rather easy. As in any profession, we do have some under-performers. But the overwhelming majority of academics are dedicated and idealistic people (although we sometimes manage to beat the idealism out of them), who want to live up to and who do live up to the expectations we have of them, and who work exceptionally hard. Their concern is that the rewards (and I don’t mean money) are scarce.

Academic communities have historically often struggled not to let ideals be smothered by cynicism. Right now we are facing challenges that some may think threaten to defeat us altogether. We must not be mesmerised by these – right now is the time to plan boldly and to act decisively, and to convey a sense of purpose. We must also allow ourselves the occasional celebration and fun.

Nobody can pretend that an academic career is going to be all plain sailing, nor should we become too defensive when external stakeholders raise questions about how we teach and research; but we can work together to ensure that it remains a uniquely satisfying career.