Posted tagged ‘academic workloads’

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.


Recognising hard work in higher education

March 4, 2014

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.

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.

Terms and conditions of employment in Irish higher education

December 19, 2010

One of the great uncertainties in higher education right now is how academic terms and conditions may change in the future. This is made more complicated by the fact that such terms are very loosely, if at all, defined in the universities, while they are regulated in some detail in the institutes of technology and some other colleges. In the universities there is an understanding that academic staff must be engaged in work that will provide proper teaching for students and will lead to high value research outputs (as well as administrative and external work); precise working time and conditions are not set out, but the principle of goodwill in fact produces workloads and a working week for many that is highly demanding and in terms of hours far greater than in most private sector employments. In the institutes workloads are included in an agreed and binding framework that sets teaching contact hours and provides for fixed holidays.

All of this is being called into question by recent comments on higher education and by the government’s agreement with the public service trade unions (the ‘Croke Park’ agreement). Under the education clauses of this agreement working hours are to be extended (easy when you have fixed hours, less easy when you don’t) and other contractual terms are to be reformed, in return for a commitment by the government not to cut pay any further.

The implementation of these terms was always going to be tricky, but one factor creating problems was the refusal by the Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI), which organises staff in the institutes of technology, to ratify the agreement or to be bound by it. The government’s threatened response to this was to suggest redundancies for the institutes. The union blinked, and has agreed to enter into discussions about the implementation of the Croke Park agreement.

But this will not be easy, as an email distributed by former TUI President and lecturer in the Dublin Institute of Technology, Paddy Healy, shows. In this email dated December 15, he lists concessions he thinks are being demanded of the union in relation to academic working conditions and suggests that institutes’ academic staff were being ‘bludgeoned into submission’, and that it would be ‘suicide to do a deal with a dying government’.

The Croke Park agreement in any case has an uncertain future, but it is unlikely that a tactic of militant opposition to reform of working conditions will play well with the public. Some of the more specific ‘protections’ enjoyed by institute of technology staff (such as long summer holidays) are hard to defend, or at any rate it would be unwise to defend them publicly. However, the fight (if that is what it is) on these issues could so collateral damage to the universities, whose capacity to extract commitment and additional work from academics would be seriously undermined if minimum (and thus inevitably maximum) workloads were imposed.

Both the universities and the institutes do however need to become much more sophisticated in recording and publicising actual staff workloads, to overcome the widespread perception that working conditions not onerous. Staff resistance to the collation of such information (and there is some, in some institutions) could come back to haunt them.

This entire process is a highly sensitive one and may easily go wrong.

Heigh ho, it’s off to work we go – truly!

September 25, 2010

I wonder how this would look. Let us imagine that we were to organise a meeting of academics, to which we would invite four or five politicians. The purpose of the meeting would be to get an understanding of how politicians carry out their work. We might ask them how long, on average, they attend the parliamentary debating chamber, and at what time they start. We might ask about how many hours they would spend there before heading off to the bar. And we might ask them how long they spend away from parliament over the summer. And having heard their answers, we might suggest to them that this, frankly, isn’t much of a workload.

In reality of course, we wouldn’t do any of this, because we understand well enough that politicians work long hours and that they work under considerable pressures. We know it’s often a thankless job, and we know that the occasional under-performance by a small minority of politicians doesn’t represent best practice amongst them. But we know, and they know, that outside Leinster House there are a good few people who would be less willing to accept that.

However, this week the boot was on the other foot, and politicians on the Public Accounts Committee of Dail Eireann had universities in their sights. With all seven Irish university presidents before them, they asked some questions about academic workloads, and suggested that academics ‘could be working as few as 15 hours every week’ (according to Labour’s Róisín Shortall). As it happens, Ms Shortall is a regular (and often helpful) visitor to DCU, as she is one of the local TDs, and she knows well enough that this is nonsense. But if she (and some of the other politicians present at the hearing) really believes that academics are work-shy and work for only 15 hours, then we must ask ourselves why universities have been so bad at explaining how they function.

Part of the problem is that universities are reluctant to become too clinical about working hours, not least because the actual hours worked – which for many staff are 70 hours per week rather than 15 – are well in excess of what any employer could reasonably demand, and our ability to extract them from lecturers depends on a spirit of goodwill. What lecturers do goes far beyond the classroom hours; it includes surgeries with students, preparation and marking, attendance at committees and working parties, informal advice and support, research, representation of universities on public bodies, and so forth.

When I was still president of DCU, I used to send out emails at about 1 am (my working day rarely ended before 2 am), and was always amazed at how many of these emails produced immediate responses – in what other profession would that be the case? It is now 1.39 am, and if I were to send an email to every member of the Public Accounts Committee, I wonder how many responses I would get tonight.

I am not suggesting that academics should ignore all this. The times may now be over during which we could ask colleagues to work whatever hours are needed to get the job done. We may now need to make working time the subject-matter of much more precise contractual obligations. I suspect this is becoming inevitable. My fear is that when we do this everyone will lose, and the collegiality of academic working life will be compromised. But that may now be the price we have to pay, ironically, in order to get public confidence.