After my last blog on academic work culture almost brought the CST site down I was going to resort to less fraught ground today and write about the brilliance of Claudia Winkleman. And then John Ellis shared with me the latest Times Higher 2015 University Workplace Survey and I felt compelled to write again about the working environment within academia (I promise I will stop harping on about this at some point and return to writing about television…).
The survey is full of interesting insights, but two things are really striking. The first is the difference that the survey reveals between the attitudes of academics and of professional and support staff within universities. In relation to some of the issues I raised in my last blog, 41% of academics think that the workload assigned to them by their employer is reasonable, compared with 70% of administrators. Meanwhile, 63% of academics feel that their university sometimes takes advantage of them, against 34% of professional and support staff. 53% of academics think that their work responsibilities do not allow them to have a healthy work-life balance, while only 19% of professional and support staff would say the same. Academics are far more likely to feel that they spend too much time working (66%) compared to 30% of administrators, with 87% of academics reporting having to work additional hours against 60% of those in professional and support roles.
The report paints a picture of a higher education system in which academic staff seem to be shouldering the burden of the additional work demands that have accrued in response to the policy and regulatory changes affecting higher education in the UK. Certainly, the realities of contemporary academic work are a far cry from the cultural stereotype of the academic locked away in his (invariably it’s a man) ivory tower unable or unwilling to engage with the ‘real’ world. Indeed it seems to me that academic labour is woefully misunderstood by pretty much everyone who isn’t an academic. And you can’t really blame people for this. When I was a student I had no idea what my tutors were doing when they weren’t teaching us. And with all of the cultural representations of academics swanning around drinking port and having affairs with their students I assumed they led a privileged life. I certainly had no conception of the amount of administration and bureaucracy that sits behind the delivery of university degrees. I’ve often wondered about the benefits of having one of our student reps shadow me for a few days to give them a sense of the kind (and amount) of work that fills my typical working day, only I can’t think of anything more boring for an undergraduate student than sitting in my office watching me compose a teaching strategy, reply to the 80 emails that have appeared in the 3 hours I’ve been teaching, read the 20 PhD funding applications that have come in, or sit on yet another working group/meeting, all without a break for lunch.
Looking at my own work environment I see a work culture where academics are asked to do more and more administrative work, alongside increased pressures to do more teaching and to be more productive with our research. While I often feel that much of the work I am asked to do could be more easily (and effectively) undertaken by an administrator, these pressures speak to the point I made in my last blog about the unrealistic expectations placed on academics and the insidiousness of hours as necessary and zero hours contracts. Add to this the exploitation of recently graduated PhD students that Richard Hewett discussed so eloquently last week and we have a clear picture of an academic management that seems to have little respect for its staff, or (if we were to be more charitable) has little understanding of how to adequately and appropriately motivate and reward its staff.
We all know that these are challenging times for higher education in the UK and that the system is undergoing huge changes. What is striking about John Cater, the VC of Edge Hill University (which came top of the workplace survey), is that he talks in ways that value his staff and places them at the centre of this process of change. He says,
The key differentiating factor for any university is the enthusiasm and quality of its staff. The job of the senior team is to help create, support and sustain that ethos and culture, to strengthen our sense of shared vision and strategy, to listen and communicate effectively, and to utilise the strengths and value the contribution of each and every hard-working colleague.
The THE survey suggests that this is not happening elsewhere. Only 32% of academics would give a high (agree or strongly agree) rating to their university’s leadership, compared to 62% of administrators and only 47% would recommend their university to others, against 79% of administrators. I’m not advocating here management by committee. The phrase ‘herding cats’ can be very well applied to academics! But strong leadership is not only decisive, it also knows how to bring its staff along with it – to demonstrate to staff that they are valued and to put in place contracts and procedures that genuinely support all staff (and I would include hourly paid teaching staff within this).
What seems to happen instead is that the value system created by universities (in terms of appointments, promotions, annual reviews etc.) actively encourages academics to adopt the ivory tower mentality by over-emphasising research activity (which in the arts means the sole-authored book or article) and de-valuing administration, citizenship roles and teaching. Even when I talk to colleagues working in more teaching-intensive universities, it seems to be research publications that are likely to get you appointed and promoted even if there is little support for research within the institution itself. Yet research is just one part of what makes a good academic. Indeed, universities need good researchers, but also good teachers, good administrators, good citizens, academics who are good at interfacing with business or the local community. I would like to see a university reward system that properly valued the full range of activities that academics do to help the smooth running of their institutions. Personally, I would advocate for more specialisation within the system. It’s a rare beast that is a great researcher, teacher and administrator. Yet there has been little space for talent to be spotted and nurtured within the universities that I have worked at. Those academics with real administrative talent should be identified early on and provided training, support and reward to become the great heads of department, deans and VCs that the sector really needs. Those with a real talent in the classroom should also be properly rewarded – and not just in response to students’ evaluation of teaching – with teaching leaders being recognised at professorial level. This doesn’t mean that talented teachers and administrators should not be supported if they want to do research – we all know the value of research-led teaching and of managers who understand the rigors and challenges of academic research. Rather, what I’m arguing for here is that we move away from the ‘one size fits all’ model of contemporary academia. That rather than management placing pressure on us to do more and more, it should be working productively with its workforce to see where individual strengths could be more adequately focused, developed and rewarded. This would demand a far more people- (rather than systems) centred approach to academic management. But also a more strategic one that asked what does the modern university need to succeed.
My experience of recruitment and promotion (which seems to be reflected in Richard’s blog last week) is that universities demand excellence in teaching, but measure this in a rather ‘tick-box’ fashion in which you are asked what you have taught and perhaps metrics from your students’ evaluation of your teaching. Meanwhile, administrative work is again demanded but there is usually little concern with the quality of your work. In fact, often the emphasis is on the new initiatives you brought in, rather than any genuine reflection on what makes a good administrator/manager. And yet despite all of this, appointments and promotions seem to stand or fall on research publications – the only thing that really counts is how many books and journal articles you have published. For recently graduated PhD students stuck in the world of hourly paid teaching this can present a particular trap in which in order to get a permanent job in academia you need to publish, but the only paid work that can be found for recently graduated doctoral students is teaching only, with no pay for research and writing. And so right at the start of their careers we are telling our PhD students that research (the thing that will get you a job and will get you promotion) is the work that you do in your spare time.
The second thing that is striking about the THE survey is that despite all of this academics seem to be satisfied with their work. 80% of academic staff claimed that their work was a source of satisfaction, with 80% finding satisfaction in teaching and 74% in research.
As Yiannis Gabriel, chair in organisation studies at the University of Bath School of Management states, ‘Academics’ responses raise a very interesting theoretical issue. How is it possible for people to claim to like their work and yet hate most things about it?’ He speculates that academics might love an idealised idea of what it means to be an academic, rather than the daily reality. Personally, I think we need to interrogate what we might mean or understand by the word ‘satisfied’. In my last blog I talked about the dangers of the ‘love what you do’ rhetoric. That actually loving our work might be problematic. The question of satisfaction doesn’t ask: what aspects of our work are we satisfied with and what does satisfaction mean? Academia, despite all of its problems, can be a hugely satisfying occupation. I feel satisfied when I know that a teaching session has gone well or my students exceed their expectations, or when I solve a tricky administrative problem, complete a piece of research or manage to nail a tricky sentence when writing. It is also important to recognise the positive aspects of academic work culture. I hugely value the flexibility and autonomy that I get in this job, from being able to work from home one day a week, to being able to devise my own modules and decide how to teach and assess them (within some limits), to choosing what to research and publish. I am aware that this is a real privilege and also a significant source of satisfaction. As such, there are multiple sources of satisfaction in this job. However, answering yes to the question of whether you are satisfied with your job is not the same as answering yes to the question of whether you are satisfied with the conditions under which you work. And the THE survey suggests that there are significant problems with the working conditions for academics (including those not on permanent contracts) within this sector which could have consequences for its health and vitality (let alone the health and vitality of university staff) in the future.
Catherine Johnson is Associate Professor in Film and Television at the University of Nottingham. She is the author of Branding Television (Routledge, 2012) and Telefantasy (British Film Institute, 2005) and the co-editor of Transnational Television History (Routledge, 2012) and ITV Cultures: independent television over fifty years (Open University Press, 2005). Her new book The Promotional Screen Industries (co-authored with Paul Grainge) will be published by Routledge in Spring 2015.