Posted tagged ‘sabbatical leave’

Taking leave

April 16, 2012

Back in 1984 I was completing a book, and was finding it difficult to achieve this alongside what had become a rather heavy teaching load. So I approached my head of department, and he decided to give me a term off (this was before the age of semesters in Trinity College Dublin). So I packed my bags and set of for Berkeley in California, where I spent some time sitting in a really excellent library and enjoying the opportunities for intellectual and other stimulation in the San Francisco Bay Area. Not only did I get the time off, I was also able to get the financial support that made the American trip possible. I finished the book, developed a new course, and also discovered a lifelong fascination and love affair with California – but that’s another story.

But now to 2012. A few days ago a former colleague, who got his first academic job from me, sent me an email. He has been in his present university for 11 years, but in that time he has never had any kind of leave. Moreover, recent cuts in his department have left him with a teaching load that leaves no time for sustained research. His head of department has now told him that sabbatical leave is out of the question for the foreseeable future. But at the same time, his department is playing host to a lecturer on leave from another university. As far as my friend can tell, this visitor isn’t doing anything significant, and indeed is telling everyone that the purpose of the leave is to ‘re-charge his batteries’.

So where is all this heading? Is sabbatical leave a luxury we can no longer afford in straitened times? And when we had it more widely, was it sometimes abused?

How we handle the idea of sabbatical leave depends a little on what we think academic employment is all about. Do we want lecturers to be academic explorers and intellectual entrepreneurs? If we do, we need to give them the occasional space to pursue these aims. Equally, we need to ensure that this space is used appropriately. But increasingly we are creating a system in which academics are not designers but assembly line workers, and we are achieving this state of affairs by stealth rather than design.

There are still academics who are able to avail of sabbatical leave. But the number is declining, and the new more restrictive conditions are changing the face of the academy.

The new higher education environment

December 2, 2010

Funding cuts and adjustments to traditional academic practices are not unique right now to these islands, they have become a global phenomenon. In Iowa in the United States local lawmakers are planning to end paid sabbatical leave by faculty, long considered internationally as a key element of academic professional development. Sabbaticals allow faculty to catch up with developments in their area, but also to do the research that will support their teaching and scholarship.

Meanwhile the University of Queensland in Australia has announced that it will cull teaching and research programmes that it can no longer afford. This is one of the key research universities in the country, and its move demonstrates how difficult it is now becoming for higher education institutions to maintain a wide portfolio of programmes; many, even long-standing research universities, will increasingly have to limit what they offer and develop a specialist focus.

Furthermore in India employees from a number of universities have held a rally in Delhi to protest about inadequate funding.

We are witnessing a global reconfiguration of higher education, but if we are honest we don’t really know where this is going, or how quality and excellence will be managed in this new environment. The public debate on all this is just a debate about ‘cuts’, in which universities, staff and students are calling for more money. Very little discussion has taken place about a model for higher education that might preserve excellence to the greatest possible extent in the absence of levels of state funding that used to be the norm.

There is an urgent need right now to identify the kind of system of higher education that we might want or would be able to live with and that would be workable on reduced public funding. We need to plan this properly. Changing the model by stealth, on the back of public expenditure cuts, is not the way to go.

Sabbatical values

August 8, 2009

As I wrote yesterday, right now I am in the United States on vacation. In fact, almost exactly 25 years ago I was in Americas for the first time ever. At that time I was doing research for a book, which was about comparative industrial relations law and practice. My original intention was to cover Ireland, the United Kingdom and Germany in my study, but the publishers felt the book would sell better if I also included the United States. My then Head of Department agreed, and secured for me a term of sabbatical leave so that I could travel to the US to do the necessary work there. And so, in mid-1984, I travelled to Berkeley in California, and for the next while I stayed there with the Institute of Industrial Relations (now the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment).

For me this was an eye opener in all sorts of ways. Like so many people in Europe, I knew America from the movies and TV, and arriving there was in some ways like turning up on a movie set; it took me several days before it actually felt real. This was during the Reagan presidency, which had had a major impact both on US industrial relations practice, and also on European perceptions of America. It was a time of huge change, and in the University of California at Berkeley this was reflected in very lively debate. This debate stretched across the disciplines, and for the first time I fully appreciated the value of economic analysis, for example, in identifying and developing a perspective on law. In short, my period in California made me the kind of academic I became, and was one of the biggest influences on my subsequent career. It also left me with a lifelong interest in and affection for the United States, warts and all.

Right now, as we re-assess what is desirable and what is affordable in academic life, one of the risks is that with growing pressures on staffing resources we will find we can no longer afford to allocate such sabbaticals. This would have quite profound consequences: the opportunity for young academics in particular to expand their horizons and to learn from international best practice has been an important driver of academic quality. It seems to me that we need to ensure that we can continue to offer this, and to make it possible within our academic structures, even with tighter budgets and greater staffing constraints. To lose it would be an enormous step backwards.

I hope that future generations of academics will continue to experience new insights from sabbatical visits to other countries and cultures, and that they won’t have to wait until they can afford to travel there, at their own cost, on vacation.