Academic Workload

Continuing his Marshall Attack, Prof Higginbotham moved his bishop to b3. He pushed himself up from the large couch and stretched in front of the fire. Time for a lecture. Grabbing some notes from a small table beside the sherry, he went to the window of his ivory tower. A few students were already waiting below, he could see a few more scuttling across the quad. Late, as usual. He opened the window and cast the papers containing the day’s knowledge down to his charges, who eagerly caught them, some chasing the papers in the light breeze. Closing the window, he returned, leaving one sheet he held onto on the small table by the sherry, where Marjorie, the departmental secretary would collect it and photocopy it for next year. He refilled his sherry glass, and moved to resume the game. What a busy day! It would be time for lunch soon.

Academic workload is a contentious topic at the moment, after the recent Public Accounts Committee grilling of the University Presidents, and their FAS moment. At one stage of this committee hearing, Roisin Shorthall TD requested to know how many hours an academic worked. I think the question of number of hours is over-simplified. I can understand the need for accountability, but higher education is a very complex system, and a counting of hours does not reflect anything except the making of an easy bar chart. Face-time with students is one component, (and unfortunately an ever-dwindling component) of what an academic actually does. The question should not be on the number of hours spent by an academic on a job – there are lots of studies to show it far exceeds a typical working week – but rather the quality of that time. There are two factors to consider here – amount of time spent by academics on administration and the fallacy of requiring accountability.

Ned Costello (of the IUA) recently commented at a PAC that a typical (university) lecturer spent roughly 40:40:20 on teaching:research:administration. Now it’s impossible to come up with a generic ratio like this, and even though Ned said something not very nice about us in the Institutes, I can imagine he was pressed for a number. 40-40-20 is always a good one, having a nice 4-4-2 ring to it that appeals to former sports-people turned commentators.  The HE sector has a top-heavy administration sector, meaning there are more administrators than lecturers (imagine that happening in health – we’d go mad…) So as well as having half the staff on non-teaching duties, teaching staff are required to spend their time on administration duties. The problem for practitioners on the ground is that this 20% is constantly pushing and bloating, reducing the time that can be spent on jobs that academics should be doing – teaching (which involves formal lecturing, lab/workshop teaching and informal aspects not recorded but  of equal or more value – talking with students, continuous assessment, feedback) and engaged in research/consultancy/etc.

This is especially so in the area of research. Most academics can talk of research grant applications that require descriptions written at length telling the funding agency what results will be obtained, having to keep research student log books to prove you met students while completing the research and complicated research account statements to prove you spent the money wisely. Then there are the several forms and requirements for getting a student to a viva voce. The system is self-fuelling, administrators want their stamp on everything, so there are more forms to fill out, more time on administration and ultimately more administrators to keep track of the forms. On paper it makes sense – there is a nice paper trail and at the end of it all, it is “accountable”. But at what expense? Wouldn’t these hours be better spent on research itself, rather than accounting for it? Taking autonomy away from people and institutions means that they will spend more time proving that they are doing the job they are meant to be doing rather than doing the job itself!

The process of requiring individuals to be accountable will ultimately result in them doing less work

This is the fallacy of requiring accountability in a type of employment which does not easily facilitate bean-counting. And while all that discussed above is annoying, it is small fry to what is coming our way. HE will be run on a business model where the expense per lecturer will be offset against the income – ultimately a cost-benefit analysis. There is an excellent article on this model in the Wall St Journal. While individual differences between income and expense may be explained locally (Lecturer X does a lot of in-class tutorials with small groups, hence the high “expense”), these numbers will ultimately compiled by school, college and institution, where these local explanations are lost. The easiest way for institutions to be in the black will be to have very large classes and summative assessment, which goes against pretty much every good teaching practice concept developed in the last thirty years. In practice, this will push more academics to formally record what they have being doing outside Roisin Shorthall’s supposed 15 hour workload – meeting students, correcting continuous assessment, discussing feedback, mentoring projects, preparing induction, professional development and so on [and on]. Institutions will eventually have to reject the recording of this time, as it will very quickly exceed 40 hours, so these activities will dwindle. In other words, the process of requiring individuals to be accountable will ultimately result in them doing less work. But at least we’ll know then how much work they do…

This simple solution is to ease off on over-monitoring. The system has internal, often informal checks. Students are quick (and right) to complain about lecturers who they feel are not delivering the goods. It’s impossible to conduct research effectively without publishing or presenting work to peers in your discipline, who will be far more critical than any of my very nice administration colleagues could be. In short, all this time spent saying how busy we are could be much better utilised. The increase in fees in the UK and the re-implementation of fees in Ireland will be the oxygen to the spark that is igniting around flexible models of education provision, where private companies are already way ahead of the starting line, ready to run. George Siemens recently wrote that “higher education is not in control of its fate as it has failed to develop the capacity to be self-reliant in times of change“. Instead of bean-counting the past, institutions should be pushing forward alternative means of provision so that they have the money to survive the future.

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