Posted tagged ‘academic working hours’

Academic working hours and glass ceilings

June 1, 2011

The President of the University of Manchester, Dame Nancy Rothwell has given an interview to the Guardian newspaper in which she answers a number of questions on the impact of academic work patterns on women and their careers. Here is one of her answers:

‘I rarely work less than 70 hours a week. On the other hand it depends what you look at as work. University events in the evening are usually work but they are enjoyable; there are a lot of things I chose to read for work but is that work? And I look at research as a hobby. But I think one of the greater issues around high achieving women in HE is that it is very hard to step out of research and then back in again because of the long-term impact it has on [your] research. Your research success depends on being published. It’s a hard culture to break because it’s an international culture and people who do research don’t consider working long hours a bad thing, they do it because they love it.’

A little later in the interview she offers the view that she ‘certainly [hasn’t] experienced any gender bias.’

Having perhaps similar working habits to those of Dame Nancy Rothwell, it is not for me to criticise what she does. But if we are to have gender equality in higher education we must avoid suggesting that excessive hours are not really hard work and that they are, and should be accepted as, normal. I am sure many people share her love for what they do, but people with family or other outside responsibilities will find it much more difficult to be so tolerant of what are really unacceptable conditions.

Universities are not always good at encouraging their staff to adopt a healthy work-life balance. To do so is good in its own right, but it is also an important ingredient in tackling campus inequalities. We all need to make sure we are sending out the right messages.


How should the academic community respond to critical public opinion?

January 27, 2011

Here is a comment from the United States about how the wider public views the academic profession:

‘”Across the country, public education is under siege,” Lisa Vollendorf, chair of the Romance, German and Russian languages and literatures department and of the academic senate at California State University at Long Beach, said in an e-mail, summing up the sense of acute concern felt by many faculty members in her state and elsewhere. “At a time when the global economy depends on brains and not brawn, public support for education is at an all-time low.”‘

On this side of the Atlantic, that sounds awfully familiar. As society tries to come to grips with a totally changed economic environment and as governments try to make ends meet, expensive public services have come under fire from all quarters, and higher education is right there amongst them. Two common threads in all this criticism are the charge of under-performance (or rather more accurately, the neglect of students and of frontline teaching), and complaints about allegedly excessive pay for academics. This mood asserts itself almost whenever academics appear in public debate: the response in the letters pages of the Irish Times to the recent meeting in Dublin on academic freedom makes the point, as have some recent articles in the British media.

As I have argued regularly in this blog and elsewhere, there is very little evidence of widespread underperformance by faculty. On the contrary, most lecturers and professors work exceptionally long hours and demonstrate genuine flexibility and goodwill in carrying out their jobs. But while we know that in the universities, we have not persuaded the public, and there is evidence that hostility towards higher education staff is growing, and may persuade politicians to promise or take measures that will seriously damage the system.

Academics often and rightly emphasise that policy should be evidence-based. Anecdotes are not a good basis for strategic reform. On the other hand, however, we are ourselves not good at assembling hard facts that will support our case for support. We are too often unable to prove our assertions about academic workloads, for example, though we know them to be true.

One activity within higher education, therefore, that really is of the utmost importance, is the gathering of hard data. This is now policy across institutions, but is sometimes resisted; though maybe the nature and purpose of these exercises is not always communicated well. We need to be able to document much more precisely what work is done, how it is done, when it is done, and how much it costs. The purpose of this is not to develop new controls, but to assemble reliable information on the basis of which institutions can plan properly and can defend themselves effectively. If we are unable to do this, we may soon find ourselves in genuine peril.

In search of the working week

September 27, 2010

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.

Taking pot shots

February 1, 2010

Clearly it’s still the hunting season for universities. After last week’s events at the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education and Science, we have now had the Minister for Education and Science, Batt O’Keeffe TD, offering his views on academic staff performance: and he’s not impressed at all, he says.

What is the occasion for his criticism? Well actually, I have no idea what brought it on, but what he said was in a speech he gave to the conference of the Irish Primary Principals Network (IPPN). According to the Irish Times, he said he had recently been briefed by some ‘high profile academics’ (actually, tempt me just a little and I’ll say who I think they may have been, or maybe readers may want to guess) and he was told by them that lecturers were ‘teaching for only four hours a week’. This, he elaborated on RTE’s Morning Ireland, seemed very little.

The Minister also managed to connect his views about academic workloads with his previously announced (and somewhat insultingly entitled) ‘forensic audit’ of higher education institutions. Once again he has suggested that universities don’t spend their money well and that academics are work-shy. All this gets mixed into the cocktail of accusations levelled at the institutions at the Joint Committee.

When DCU made its submission last year to the steering group working on the national higher education strategy, the first and most basic recommendation we made was that policy on higher education (and for that matter on anything else) should only be made on the back of sound evidence. Right now the politicians are making loud noises about universities in an increasingly breathless manner based often on nothing more than rumours or anecdotes or individual letters sent to them (which often sound as if they were written with a green biro). This does not take on the status of ‘evidence’, even when it gets put about by two ‘high profile’ academics, who may well have an agenda of their own.

The Minister may want to come and have a look, in any of the Irish universities. He will find academics who now quite routinely have a working week well in excess of 50 hours, and sometimes substantially so. He may want to be briefed on the extent to which these academics spend all day on teaching related duties, before settling down to some research at night. No doubt we have occasional examples of people whose working habits are less onerous, but they are certainly the exception. No doubt there are things we can change. But for heaven’s sake – and this plea is directed at all politicians – stop undermining our higher education system by repeating various way out comments from people with an axe to grind. The strategic review of higher education will, we hope, set out an analysis based on better information and more mature reflection. Wait for that, and then let us have evidence-based political actions. Surely that isn’t too much to ask.

Nine to five

September 17, 2009

When does an academic’s working day begin and end? Well, according to Liverpool Hope University in England, office hours begin at 9 am and end at 5 pm. Actually, strictly speaking that’s not correct; rather, the university told its staff earlier this summer that they are expected to be on the campus for 35 hours per week, and a spokesman for the institution did say that this need not necessarily be 9 to 5. However, the university pointed out in a statement that it was a ‘real’ university community and not a ‘virtual’ one, and that students were entitled to get support from its staff.

Traditionally academic staff working for universities are given a very high degree of discretion as to where, when and how they conduct their work. There are fixed times and places for teaching, and most would also expect their staff to attend certain meetings and to be available for consultation at certain agreed times; but beyond that it is all a matter for the staff.

It is informative to read the comments on the Times Higher Education website on this story. Some of these have clearly been added by lecturers, such as this one:

‘The practice of academics working at home is a long held tradition amongst universities, so why an earth would Liverpool Hope think breaking from the norm would be a good idea? Doe the university have heady aspirations of becoming a community college?’

Or this one:

‘I think it would be most insulting to be micromanaged in this way by an administrator. Furthermore, what I personally know about the kind of low-level institutions cited above by Disgusted, leads me to believe that this kind of invasive micro-managing is often actually done with the intent to reduce the productivity of an Academic because others in the department do not want to be out-shined by a high achiever. Another important factor to be considered in this day and age is that we are all trying to reduce our carbon footprints, so forcing people to turn up to work when they could be doing the same work as well or better at home is just plain wrong.’

Other readers who have added comments are probably past or present students, and here the balance of opinion is very much the other way. This comnment expresses it:

About time that someone takes a stand against the lazy academics out there! How many are paid for a full time job that they simply don’t do? It is time the needs of the students and the HEi are put first. If you can’t stand the heat and all that.

Personally, I believe that the approach taken by Liverpool Hope University is a mistake, and in particular would risk depriving the university of the goodwill that is an essential ingredient in academic life. In any case, there is considerable evidence that actual working hours for academics, in the majority of cases, exceed 35 hours by some margin. However, it is also becoming increasingly clear that the traditional autonomy of lecturers is not understood by the wider community, and is often viewed with cynicism by students. Also, it has become common, in order to justify funding and other supports, to require universities to be much more precise in logging the work done by staff.

This, increasingly, is the age of monitoring and transparency, and it is unlikely that anyone will accept a university argument about the validity of staff autonomy and discretion. What exactly that will lead us to is unclear. But I still hope that we do not become 35-hours-a-week institutions; that would not just deprive academics of this autonomy, but would also put at risk the ability of universities to schedule anything – whether classes or meetings or whatever – outside of what someone will now regard as normal working hours; a good deal of flexibility would be lost. In order to protect this autonomy and flexibility, we will however probably have to provide better guarantees of personal support for students and agree to performance indicators for staff.

We need to move with the spirit of the age, but without losing aspects of academic life that actually add to performance while also providing attractions for  those seeking an academic career.