“And You’re Supposed to Be the Clever Ones!” A Comment on Unsustainable Academic Workload
Being a University lecturer or professor conjures up images of very brainy people sat in worn leather armchairs, thinking through the biggest problems in their subject after reading enlightening articles by their colleagues so they might too write a paper to contribute to the wealth of knowledge or invent a new process or material or cure to contribute to civilisation. They may then present all this along with more broad education in the field to keen students in a lecture theatre.
These images are indeed what academia should be about. Research and teaching is what makes up the contracts of all T&R academics. It was until recently seen as a very attractive job with flexible working patterns, autonomy, freedom to be creative, and impactful; training and inspiring the next generation while impacting and solving some of the biggest issues for civilisation. It was collegial, collaborative, with unpredictable peaks and troughs of work depending on research results and student numbers. Such unpredictability demanded a “give and take” culture which was par for the course.
You will note the past tense. It is a long way from the attractive job outlined above. One can argue it hasn’t been like that for a very long time but the 20-odd years I have been in academia the pressures, the changes are remarkable: the job is unrecognisable from when I started. For me, the biggest issue, the driving force that is really making me consider leaving my job and the sector is workload.
So what has happened over the last decade? I should caveat that I am not an economist, historian, social scientist or management expert, so the next paragraph could be nonsense academically, but from where I stand, I see something similar to what happened in the NHS.
Academics really care, like NHS staff care. Our work is not as crucial as the life and death situations which NHS staff deal with, but we do feel a devotion to our students and a passion for our research that goes beyond simply work. Unpredictability, collegiality, and a give and take ethos exists in both environments.
So when both become marketized and managed in a new economic way, what happens? The first thing that happens, as a result of assessing everything in terms of finances only, is cuts. Activity comes to be supported by business plans with only financial considerations. In most businesses, certain cuts would have negative impacts on business, so would be reassessed. But these impacts were not seen when they should have been in the NHS and in academia because staff could not bear to see a reduction in services. NHS staff work unpaid overtime to give desperate patients the care they require. Likewise for academia, we would not agree to a reduction in care for our students or to not pursue that research idea that is our passion. And so it transpires we are squeezed, and because of our overwhelming loyalty and devotion to colleagues and students, we work for free!!
However, unlike most aspects of the new overworked NHS we also have a global competitive culture. We compete with well-resourced research professors in countries where there is less of a workload issue, and also with our colleagues here in the UK “happy” to work 14 hours a day (no exaggeration) – colleagues who do their teaching and admin/leadership by day and research by night. I try really hard to set boundaries. I cannot rob my children of their parent during their childhood, so I end up doing most things just good enough, satisfactorily or even badly when I just don’t have time. I have to work overtime for paper writing and grants that are competitively judged and this work goes long into the night once the kids are down. But winging it is too often a necessity. It is common for me to be paralysed with long lists of job only I can apparently do, that all need doing NOW, before I teach in an hour. Finding time to eat lunch is out, I am bound to my office and my email as I need to review some potential student before a noon deadline, send some other overworked academics some metrics on me for some national body or other, review a tutee’s extenuating circumstances case NOW for the meeting happening at 1pm, write the lecture and photo copy the material that I am due to deliver in an hour, no 40 mins now. Ahh. Which do I do first? Forget lunch, forget the new exciting teaching I was going to try, hello old notes, don’t even have time to go to the loo, so here I arrive in front of a lecture of 120 students, hungry, needing a wee and unprepared. Winging it.
So what does this workload look like? For an excellent account of the reality of a teaching and research staff academic workload see this excellent blog post. What I am interested in exploring here though is how we have effectively fallen between two stools. We work for free, yet in a marketized system. We need to value our own labour within the context of marketisation and we currently simply do not.
A solicitor once described how they charged for their time by the hour and/or by the letter written. He snorted when he was told about some free paper reviewing we do saying “And you’re supposed to be the clever ones!!”
It is basically too embarrassing to carry on these conversations with other professionals when we think of the lists and lists of things we do for free. Under the heading of professional standing and leadership we are sitting on national advisory, editorial advisory and learned society boards, as well as decision panels for interviews and research council grants etc for free. We organise and run conferences, for free. Under the heading of research, we review grants and papers all for free, most (for grants) and some (for papers) of which is wasted work that does not result in a positive outcome.
Let’s look a bit closer at the latter two.
We perform our research and thus write a paper. Most of us would agree this is part of what we get paid for. Then we submit the paper (which is invariably a complex and time-consuming process). Then an unpaid academic editor sends this paper to be reviewed for free by several unpaid academics. Changes are suggested and hopefully the unpaid editor accepts the paper. Frustratingly editorial changes are now more commonly made by the author (rather than a paid-production team) and the paper is printed. This results in a bill for the author for the pleasure of publishing and/or a bill for the institution or individual that wants to read it. No money is being spent on anyone’s labour in this process. Where does all the money go?
Research funding is another. We spend months formulating and crafting excellent research bids. Grant writing is rarely accounted for in workload time. So this is again mostly done for free by academics. Again unpaid academics spend time reviewing these grants and then further unpaid academics acts as a panel member so must read all these grants and reviews together and spend even more time sat on a panel to judge them.
Success rates were at 10% for several research councils last I looked, so not only is this huge amount of labour again unpaid, 90% is fruitless!
If 10 people wrote large grants, requiring 3-5 reviewers per grant resulting in a panel this would result in approximately 365 days of free academic labour[i] to give 1 person funds to do some research.
So why do we do it? Why do we review grants and papers? The system we work in depends on it. If I didn’t review other people who would review my grants and papers? While most of this work is designed to be anonymous, people do not just do this work as a selfless act for the sector. There is an ulterior motive: the element of “friendly” reviewing is key in any research community, so the better your networking, the more time you can be present at conferences, “sell” your work, build relationships, review someone’s grant or paper favourably, just in time for them to review yours back, the better for theirs and your career. This has massive implications for the careers of those that don’t have this time to work for free: those with caring responsibilities, those that find it difficult to travel to conferences due to childcare or disability. It is this sort of work that gets you promoted, and lack of it, the opposite. I believe this element of unpaid work is a major contributor to the gender pay-gap.
Yes, all free labour is unaccounted for on most workload models and when present, vastly underestimated. Once an academic has won a research grant (through a process demanding nearly 2 working day years of unpaid labour), many institutions do not even workload the time the academic has on the grant to perform the research! The time actually paid for by the tax-payer is not work-loaded; it is effectively stolen by the institution.
This pattern of unpaid labour is seen not just in the research aspect of our job, it is anywhere we let it happen which is usually when we let others down (such as our colleagues and students) if we don’t do the unpaid work. For example, just for our students, this covers unpaid preparation time for lectures and pastoral care for tutees (ours and others), writing them references for summer placements, jobs, further study etc.
When workload models are actually challenged with regards to all this unpaid labour we are constantly met with “well that is not financially viable” to include it all. It is “not financially sustainable”, so the result is that the system only works if we all work 70+ hour weeks? If proper work-loading is unsustainable, it is the model/system that needs fixing. To fix this system, we need to start charging for every bit of our labour. It is sad but true that the only way to count worth in this marketized world is financial. You need me to review a grant, pay my employer and give the time.
Academia is simply not an attractive job anymore. The salary is not competitive, with 20% real terms reduction in recent years. The pension was seen as a big draw, but not anymore. But worse for me is losing job satisfaction. I yearn to be given the time and space to sit down and do just one aspect of my job well, to a high standard. A standard I know I am capable of yet never have time to get anywhere near.
I am sure I know creative academics with the skills and expertise that could look into these issues, if only they had the time…
[i] Calculated on 1 grant taking 30 days to write, 1 review taking 1 day, and panel members spending 2-4 days on reviewing and attending the panels.