With never-ending teaching and administrative commitments, finding time to write a book, visit a distant library, or carry out experiments is a challenge.
That is why the sabbatical - that period of uninterrupted time when academics can dedicate themselves to research - is so valued. Except that sabbaticals in some universities are being eroded, while at others, they never really got off the ground.
Sabbaticals - whereby an academic remains on his university's payroll yet is freed from teaching and administrative duties - appear a feature of most "old" universities. "I have never come across a pre-1992 institution that doesn't have provision for academic staff to take sabbaticals," says Paul Cottrell of the Association of University Teachers.
While some universities include provision for sabbaticals in their regulations, with guidelines on who can apply and how often, others have informal arrangements, at the discretion of heads of department.
But in "new" universities, despite expectations that academics should undertake research, winning a sabbatical, says Liz Allen of lecturers' union Natfhe, is often an impossible dream.
"There is no history of sabbaticals, nor often the resources for them," she says. "While some new universities may be sympathetic to the idea of sabbaticals, I don't know of any where there is a formal entitlement. There is a huge difference between the two halves of the sector. Our members are struggling to fit in research. The notion of having a whole term to do research would be a luxury."
But even in old universities, rising workloads are beginning to take their toll. Brian Everett of the AUT suggests that as student numbers increase and teaching loads escalate, staff are finding it harder to take sabbatical leave. Colleagues may be left carrying absent academics' teaching loads on top of their commitments.
"Colleagues will together decide not to take sabbatical leave," explains Everett. "My impression is that it's harder to get sabbaticals these days. People are being asked to take them for less time, or not to take them at all."
He adds that universities are asking academics to find additional sources of funding to cover sabbaticals, so that replacement teaching staff can be brought in. Cambridge University, for one, admits that many staff, such as department heads, find it hard to make time for sabbaticals.
That is not to say the sabbatical is under threat everywhere. In some of the top research universities, they are fiercely protected. Leicester University, for instance, has recently enhanced its study leave policy. Though academic staff at Leicester have to submit a sabbatical research programme for approval, academics can now apply for a semester every three years, rather than every four years as was previously the case.
"Frequent study leave has a return to the university because it results in more high-quality research," explains Peter Fearon, pro vice-chancellor at Leicester. He adds that the funding associated with the research assessment exercise is partly responsible for the change in the rules. "Sabbaticals also increase staff satisfaction," he notes. "So it's also about the recruitment and retention of research-active staff."
As for who takes sabbaticals, there is a general feeling that those in the humanities and social sciences, where acquiring research material may require a trip overseas, tend to use study leave more than their scientific colleagues. But how they use sabbaticals, whether they remain in their home town or head off, depends on the nature of the research. Many an academic has discovered words flow better in the field.
A HELPING HAND FOR THOSE IN THE ARTS
For those in the humanities lucky enough to gain a university sabbatical, the newly established Arts and Humanities Research Board can offer extra assistance to make the break from everyday teaching and administration.
The board has two schemes that could benefit those on sabbatical.
The Research Leave Scheme, now in its fourth round, provides funding to meet the salary costs of an academic for three or four months, giving them time to complete a research project. The funding needs to be matched by the academic's employer. The deadline for the next round of the Research Leave Scheme is October 31 2000.
Also, the Small Grants in the Creative and Performing Arts scheme offers up to Pounds 5,000 to meet the direct costs of research, including travel and maintenance.