'A holiday - what's that?'

August 11, 2000

Most academics, even those who are well aware of their vacation entitlement, find it hard to get away and switch off, as Jennifer Currie discovers

Ask any academic how they spent their summer holiday and the answer will be a derisive shout of laughter. "A holiday - what's that?" says Rick Rylance, dean of the School of Arts and Letters at Anglia Polytechnic University.

"If I do get a holiday, I spend it with my family. I always read on holiday, there is no getting away from it, and it can be anything from the back of the cereal packet to Harry Potter with my six-year-old. But whatever it is, I really try to switch off."

Yet switching off from work is something that many academics find tricky. Last year officials from the lecturers' union Natfhe at the University of the West of England conducted a survey of academic holidays, research and scholarly activity. It revealed that 72.6 per cent of staff blame increased work pressures on their inability to take their full holiday entitlement. As most of those surveyed also admitted to working during their time off, the survey concluded that the wellbeing and efficiency of staff were severely affected.

Chris Miller, a Natfhe branch negotiating secretary at UWE, says that most staff seemed unaware that they were entitled to an average of seven weeks' holiday each year, excluding bank and local holidays. "There was a lot of confusion around the margins about what actually constituted a day off," he recalls.

"But we have had a lot of feedback since the survey was published from members who did not realise that their contract allowed them a six-week summer break, or that staff with family responsibilities get priority when it comes to allocating holidays. They now feel more confident about taking time off - even if they still find that they have to take work away with them."

Alan Machin, a senior lecturer in tourism management at Leeds Metropolitan University, finds his subject particularly difficult to escape. "My holidays are run-of-the-mill family affairs and are very much a busman's holiday," he says. "I always keep an eye open for topics that can feed into my lectures and research, so I'm never really off the job. But it is nice to have a hobby that extends into my work."

Although the older universities determine themselves the length of the annual leave period, which is usually between six and eight weeks, the new universities have drawn up a national agreement that entitles staff to 35 days a year, in addition to bank and public holidays. But Dr Miller believes the system could still be better organised. "While the holiday booking process needs to be more rigorously monitored, the staff themselves need to be encouraged to book their holidays in advance. Managers need to be more proactive in ensuring that their staff can and do take holidays," he says.

UWE has now informed its staff that they are free to take their holidays at any point in the year, in order to recharge their batteries.

"This is a good response, but the reality is that many staff are not willing or able to take leave during term time because teaching periods continue to be seen as sacrosanct," Dr Miller says. "Increasing formal work requirements across the year have also led to staff taking fewer holidays. We want staff to try to take six weeks off in the summer and to report back to us if they encounter any resistance from the university."

WE WOULD BE ABSOLUTELY DONE FOR IF THEY TOOK SIX WEEKS OFF FOR A HOLIDAY'

Chris Rowe, professor of Greek at Durham University and chair of the Classical Association

I will take Aristotle on holiday with me this year only because I have a deadline looming. I normally take Plato.

As my wife is a classicist, too, we like to go to Greece or Italy and spend most of our time searching out archaeological sites. We have been happily doing this for more than 30 years.

When people find out what I do, the first thing they usually say is, "Oh we went on holiday to Rhodes last year. Do you know anything about it?" rather than asking me for advice on sites and locations beforehand.

I got a couple of email messages from some Italian colleagues last week, wishing me a happy holiday. They had assumed that we all head to the beach as soon as term stops, but that is rarely the case for British academics.

There is a difference between British and continental scholars. It is normal for every French and Italian academic to take all of August off, but most of us have to be back at work long before then. The pressure of next year's teaching quality assessment will mean that we have even less time off at summer.

As head of a research group, I expect my colleagues to be working on research over the summer months. We would be absolutely done for if they took six weeks off for a holiday.

Richard Voase, senior lecturer in tourism at University of Lincolnshire and Humberside

After all these years of talking about tourism, the last thing I want to do is to go and put myself in the hands of a tour operator. I am a great fan of domestic tourism.

We often stay in farmhouse B&Bs when we go away, and I think the tip of Cornwall is one of the greatest places on earth. The subtle differences between the British regions really intrigue me, and I find I relax a lot more if I holiday at home rather than abroad. You don't have to worry about flight schedules or driving on the wrong side of the road.

People think my job makes me an expert on all travel. I am often asked when the next train to London is.

My work takes me on the road two or three times a year, but I don't believe it is always necessary to visit the untrodden patches of the earth.

When people choose a holiday, it is important that they know what they want from their break. Someone with a desk job may want to go somewhere far-flung and exciting, while someone who is always on the move may look for something a bit quieter.

If retail travel agents looked carefully at the jobs their clients have and at what they do with their spare time, people would be matched up to their ideal holiday package, and levels of dissatisfaction with holidays would drop.

Mumtaz Ahmed Khan, senior lecturer in psychology at Leeds Metropolitan University

I was a practising family therapist before I became an academic psychologist, and I learnt back then that there are no easy answers to family matters. As a result, I have always tried to be as open and accessible to my children as possible.

I have always been conscious of the fact that I could be experimenting on them, and I make a real effort not to introduce any psychological perspectives into their lives. Of course I reinforce moral values and limits, but I try not to be overtly academic.

My son is not as academic as both of my daughters, although I did expect him to be. He is far more interested in sports than in studying, but I do not want to push any of them in any one direction.

My daughters are going to visit northern Pakistan this summer, and it is their first visit there. It is a completely different type of society from the one they have been brought up in. I am going to join them after a few weeks to show them the family connections and to introduce them to their native land.

I normally choose to work when I am on holiday as it is the only chance I get to prepare material for the next semester and to catch up on reading.

I don't think I'll have time to work this summer, and I am planning to enjoy my holiday.

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