Leader: The pitfalls of a non-stop society

March 23, 2007

Academics seem to be adrift in a perfect storm that guarantees them sleepless nights. It is made up of ever more demanding students, more ruthless managers and technology that makes it hard to escape the demands of either.

Critics claim that the expectation of constant availability makes it tricky to be a thoughtful scholar and intellectual. They also fear career damage from bad student reports if they fail to respond to requests for help. The real issue is that the 24/7 society breaks the basic bargain between academics and universities. Except for a starry minority, academic incomes have fallen far behind those of professionals such as lawyers and accountants, let alone key people in the private sector.

But the importance of university staff has grown. In the information society, the teaching and research they carry out are key contributors to the economy as well as to individual development. Although academics are paid badly to carry out a vital social function, it has always been understood that there are compensations. They have the scope to organise their own time and effort as they see fit and are judged on the long-term quality of their work.

This unwritten contract is already being broken around the country. One north-eastern university asks its staff to be present during office hours, abandoning the ancient understanding that scholars are measured on what they do, not where they do it, and flying in the face of a growing move among employers to increase their flexibility and family-friendliness. The menace of new communications technology is even more potent than demands for attendance. It can be limited only by a new understanding between students and teachers. Any teenager now expects to be in continual touch with the world around them. Individual lecturers feel under pressure to respond to their requests for help at any time. They fear bad reports, but they also want to help students to learn.

This is a problem individuals cannot solve on their own. And while universities are competing for students, they also have responsibilities as employers.

They should implement codes of practice for access that spell out which expectations are beyond the call of duty. But staff must realise that such contracts will involve more student contact than they have been used to in the past. Even they cannot escape the non-stop society altogether.

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