Workload: it's not heavier, but it is more burdensome

Study finds hours have not risen for years, but the administrative load has. Zoë Corbyn reports

September 24, 2009

It is not hard to find scholars who feel that their workloads have reached almost unbearable levels as demands on them grow every year.

But a study has poured cold water on the idea that the number of hours put in by academic staff is rising.

A paper by Malcolm Tight, professor in higher education at Lancaster University's department of educational research, argues that there has been no substantial change in academic workloads in the UK - which average a hefty 55 hours a week - for nearly 15 years.

The study, "Are Academic Workloads Increasing? The Post-War Survey Evidence in the UK", analyses evidence from ten national work surveys undertaken since 1963.

It finds that although there has been a significant rise in the number of hours worked, most of this occurred in the 1960s, with little further growth since the early 1990s.

In the eight years before 1970, the average number of hours worked each week by academics rose rapidly from 40.5 to 50.5, according to the study, published in the Higher Education Quarterly journal.

Although the figure grew by 9 per cent over the next 25 years to reach almost 55 hours in 1994, it does not seem to have changed much since then - and "may even have decreased somewhat".

"On average, there simply is a limit to the number of hours a week people can and are prepared to work, and it has been reached," Professor Tight told Times Higher Education.

The study also looks at how academics' workloads are divided between teaching, administration and research.

Although the burdens of administration have grown significantly, those of research have more or less held steady, it states.

In the early 1960s, academics reported spending 11 per cent of their time on administration; by 1994, this had climbed to 33 per cent.

"The contemporary academic perception that workloads are increasing, and are indeed at untenable levels, may be directly linked to the increased amount of time spent on administration," Professor Tight's paper concludes.

"It is not that workloads as such are increasing ... (but rather) that the balance of the average academic's workload has changed in an undesirable way. This puts pressure on personal research, the aspect of the job that most academics appear to like most, and also makes it more difficult to pay as much attention to teaching."

The study also compares how much time academics in newer universities spend on research compared with their peers in older ones.

It finds that in new universities, the hours that academics dedicated to research peaked in about 1990.

In the early 1970s, scholars based in polytechnics were reported to be spending an average of only three hours a week, or 9 per cent of their time, on research.

By the start of the 1990s, this had risen to 15 per cent against 28 per cent in universities, but in 1996-97, the proportions were 10 per cent in new universities and 30 per cent in older institutions.

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