Posted tagged ‘working hours’

Academic working hours, spent at the place of work

February 13, 2011

As the academic profession continues to come under scrutiny, one traditional condition of a lecturer’s employment is being called into question: the freedom to decide how to arrange the working day, and where to do the work. It is universally accepted (leaving aside a tiny minority who might argue otherwise) that a lecturer is bound to be present to deliver his or her teaching and to provide support, advice and feedback to students; and to attend meetings and events at which they are supposed to be present. But for the rest of the working day, traditionally it was seen as acceptable for an academic to do the work (such as reading, marking or doing research) at a location to suit the lecturer, including their home.

Current discussions on new terms and conditions of employment have included the prospect that, in future, academics will have to be on the campus for the full working day. It is easy to see why this might be sought: to provide a higher level of transparency about the working day, and to ensure that a lecturer in available in a consistent manner when he or she might be needed to provide student support.

The problem is, however, that such a tightening of employment conditions removes, or has the potential to remove, a significant amount of the goodwill that keeps academics working beyond anyone’s concept of a working week. It could therefore lower academic productivity.

I would confess to feeling a sense of regret that this aspect of academic autonomy is now endangered. But academics also need to bear in mind that their flexible working conditions have been loudly misinterpreted, and that they have contributed to a widespread view that the entire profession, pretty much, under-performs. For that reason, those negotiating on their behalf should aim to find a compromise under which students have better and fuller opportunities to seek out academics, while at the same time preserving at least some of the operational independence of faculty. Simply resisting all change in this regard is likely to be counter-productive. But ending all flexibility could well contribute to a new academic profession which is less productive and less enterprising. It is important to get this balance right.

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.

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.