Posted tagged ‘Public Accounts Committee’

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.

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.

Higher education: measuring success

February 10, 2010

On June 11, 2009, the Oireachtas Public Accounts Committee assessed (amongst other things) the allocation of money to and by Science Foundation Ireland. At the end of the session the Comptroller and Auditor General, Mr John Buckley, reflected briefly on how one might assess whether the state is getting an adequate return from the investment in research carried out in universities. This is how he summarised the issue:

The challenge is to manage commercialisation such that there is a return on the State investment. This applies to the university sector where there is a need to ensure the process of protecting intellectual property rights and licensing and so on are in place and exploiting research outputs to ensure they are optimised. Then there is the level of industry or industrial promotion. The challenge here is to ensure there is a pay-off for State assistance and investment in research and development. The point is that this pay-off will be increased to the degree that it is linked with commercialisation and market awareness.

There is very little in that statement to argue with, but it needs to be said that in political debates in particular there is often an impatience with what some might regard as the rather vague metrics offered as justification for research investment. The politician’s instinct is always to look for jobs, and to look for them in the here and now. Having got used to sums invested in the IDA producing employment in a short time frame, they expect university research to do the same. But as I have noted previously in this blog, the economic impact of research is often in the job creation that it encourages third parties to make in the shorter term, and in the commercialisation impact in the much longer term. But it is dangerous to look for a ‘pay-off’ in any direct way in the short term. To that extent, universities should not encourage such misleading analysis by themselves offering the prospects of jobs in larger numbers directly created by university research, as this promotes a misunderstanding of why research should be funded.

But even when we assess university degree programmes, how do we measure success? The number of students admitted into higher education? The number of successful graduates? The number of access students? The ‘value added’ of improving results (which are sometimes taken as evidence of ‘dumbing down’, perhaps perversely)? Student satisfaction? Foreign direct investment in areas where graduates provide skills?

It seems clear to me that we are living in an age where everything that is funded is assessed in terms of whether the funded activities satisfy key performance indicators and can therefore be seen to provide value for money. This is an understandable approach, but its application to higher education is complex. We probably cannot – and probably should not – avoid this movement, but we need to develop a much clearer approach as to what indicates that investment in higher education has provided an appropriate return to the taxpayer. We may want to say that the return is vital but (literally) immeasurable: for example that it is demonstrated in an enlightened, skilled, intelligent, entrepreneurial, cultured and adaptable population. But that may not satisfy the spirit of the age that wants greater accountability in a more direct sense. So as a sector we should lead in developing an understanding of how what we do can be justified in such a spirit. This may now be one of our most urgent tasks.