Job security, academic standards, workload – you name it, university staff have concerns about it.
This is one of the dispiriting, if predictable, conclusions of the third annual Times Higher Education University Workplace Survey, which provides a detailed insight into the working lives of almost 3,000 staff based at about 150 universities throughout the UK.
There’s plenty to be positive about in the survey too, not least the reminder of how invigorating some find it to work day in, day out, with students (stop smirking at the back).
This is how it should be. But sometimes reality intervenes, and it would take a particularly myopic manager not to have noticed the pressure that many rank-and-filers have been under, or feel that they have been under, in recent years.
It’s debatable how higher education compares with other sectors on this score. The truth is that most people in most professions have been asked to do more with less, and probably feel less secure in their jobs, than they once did (it’s probably also true that ’twas ever thus).
But one thread running through many of the less positive responses is worth a closer look. It’s the common complaint – among academics in particular – that staff in non-management posts do not feel that they have a voice, or that their voice is not being heeded by those who run their institution.
There’s a distrust of consultation exercises as mere process, without any genuine intent to listen and learn, and a warning that we’ve heard many times before that ill-fitting managerialism, imported from outside academia, is stifling the collegiality that actually makes universities tick.
It’s a worry that’s articulated by a senior lecturer at a London-based institution, who says that his university is “adept at pretending to solicit staff opinion…while refusing to allow that opinion to affect the final decision outcome”.
In some cases this may well be true, but even when it’s in the eye of the disgruntled beholder, it suggests a breakdown of trust that is bound to cripple the collective effort required for a university to flourish.
Another common thread is the feeling – also strongest among academics – of being terribly overworked. One respondent reports: “I work 100 hours a week and I am exhausted.” Well, of course you are: 100 hours a week is the equivalent of 9am to 11pm every single day, weekends included.
If this is an accurate report, then it’s patently unsustainable – even bankers only manage it until they burn out at 40 (with several million in the bank, a drug habit and an autoimmune disorder). And as we reported recently, an academic study in the US has found that even in banking the returns to the employer are questionable at best, as burned-out staff retain their technical skills, but see creativity, judgement and ethics nosedive.
It hardly needs saying that these skills are important in higher education, yet our survey suggests that the creative heartbeat of the system – the scholars who have answered a vocation to teach and conduct research – are far more likely to feel unhappy in their work.
Whether or not this dissatisfaction is warranted, it suggests a failure of management, which is about taking staff on whatever “journey” (to use the lingo) that an institution has to take. Sucking the joy out of teaching and research is a one-way ticket to nowhere.