Goodbye to Easy Street

August 22, 2003

The once idle summer months are now awash with conferences, research and red tape, says Michael Kelly in the first of a series on how university staff spend their summer 'holidays'.

A former secretary and registrar at my university used to refer half-jokingly to the annual "August event". It was a major policy initiative, usually launched by the government or the funding council at the end of July, with responses required by early September. He thought it was probably a ploy to push through unpalatable measures by catching universities unawares, while the academics (but not the administrators) were away for the summer. If that registrar is reading this, he can be reassured that the ploy no longer works.

There are now lots of academics around for most of the summer. I can say this with feeling, wearing at least two of my hats: as head of the Modern Languages Research Group at Southampton University, and as director of the Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies. Both of these are managerial roles, and it may be that academics in these kinds of roles are less connected to the rhythm of terms and vacations. But it is only a difference of degree.

Academics are now drawn into a whole range of summer-time responsibilities.

Chez nous, it starts with visiting days for intending applicants in late June or early July, and goes through graduation ceremonies in mid to late July, admissions duties when the A-level results come out in mid-August, and examination resits a couple of weeks later. And in languages especially, there is a doughty bunch of teachers who prepare the growing numbers of international students in pre-sessional English and academic skills courses.

It is true that for some academics the summer brings more time to get on with research. Even so, there is pressure to attend conferences, presenting the fruits of research rather than ploughing the research furrow itself.

Some courageous colleagues also have to organise these conferences. Perhaps it is a coincidence, but the first week of July has now emerged as a prime conference time, with every sign that it could easily spread into the second week. The idea is that once exam boards are over, by the end of June, there is a window of opportunity before academics go on holiday.

For example, one of the annual French conferences has recently shifted to July from March, while another has announced that it will shift to July from September. The theory is that March-April has become difficult because, apart from a few days around Easter, many academics are not on vacation. Similarly, a lot of universities are now starting term early in September. Logically, then, the UK conference season will move further into the summer.

Research is itself now a much more pressured affair, as the noose of research assessment tightens. One of my summer jobs this year has been to work on responses to the Roberts report, published at the end of May, for which submissions are required by the end of September. I had previously thought that it would be hard to imagine a more detailed and bureaucratic task than the 2001 research assessment exercise. Well, I was wrong. The committee has come up with a much more Byzantine system, complete with a three-tiered wedding cake of subject panels and a raft of regulations that will keep us all busy for several summers. It has apparently decided it wants to reduce the amount of game-playing, so it has invented a lot of new rules. I have to point out that rules and game-playing are two sides of the same coin. In fact, the committee has upped the stakes by suggesting that universities will have a choice of three systems of assessment. They will then gamble on which is likely to prove the best bet.

A perennial summer task is making arrangements for the next academic year.

There is less and less time to sort this out before the end of term, with high teaching loads and an increasingly frenetic exam season. It now always sprawls into the vacation. This is certainly one price for the "increased productivity" our trade unions and vice-chancellors are always talking about. It is worse than usual this year, as my university is in the throes of restructuring. We have been talking most of the year about what it will all mean, and no doubt it will bring benefits. The changes came into effect in August, having soaked up large amounts of summer time.

I know we are far from alone in this, and it feels at times as if the entire university system is in convulsions of restructuring. One of our strategic aims at Southampton is to increase the proportion of postgraduate students. This is an excellent idea, of course, and lots of other universities are aiming to do the same. But it is not going to help to counteract the shrinking summer. Postgraduates do not disappear for the summer. In many cases, the summer is a time of intense involvement for supervisors, knocking the masters dissertation into shape or shepherding the doctoral dissertation in for submission at the end of September. I think this is one of reason why some colleagues in the arts and humanities are reluctant to develop masters programmes.

As director of a Learning and Teaching Support Network centre, I expect to spend some of the summer on the end-of-year reports and on preparing next year's programme of activity. Responding to our pleas of last year, the executive extended the deadline from the end of June to the end of July.

The price of easing the pressure on us over exam time is that the work carries on further into the summer. We thought it might be difficult to get hold of academic colleagues we needed to consult, but it has not been a problem. People are still responding to emails well into July.

Next year's programme is shaping up well. A series of workshops and seminars will look at different aspects of improving learning and teaching in our subject areas, at increasing student numbers and widening the social base. For the most part, these activities will take place within the teaching year, although they will culminate in a large conference on policy and curriculum in languages - yes, in early July.

The subject centre manages a large number of research and development projects of different sizes, based in universities around the UK. Projects are a brilliant way of generating ideas and materials and enabling people to bring them to a wider audience. They are becoming a familiar part of the academic scene, but they are no respecters of traditional academic cycles.

All projects have their own timescale, and not many of them incorporate a long break over the summer. A typical one-year project, starting on October 1 and finishing on September 30, leaves its participants the summer to complete and report. The spread of projects has also meant that, in arts and humanities disciplines, a growing number of non-academic staff are engaged in supporting the work. The spread of projects in arts and humanities disciplines means that a growing number of staff need to be available throughout the year.

The LTSN too is in the throes of restructuring. Initial plans have been announced for the Higher Education Academy, which will incorporate the subject centres. Along with a number of other directors, I expect to meet the new chair of the academy in early September. There will be a lot of work, I imagine, to align the subject centres' plans with the strategy of the academy, and no doubt this will occupy much of next summer.

None of this amounts to an "August event", but then the world of higher education is increasingly converging with what students ironically refer to as "the real world". Our August events are now not very different from the events of any other month in the calendar or, looked at another way, every month has its event.

Perhaps we have let ourselves be suckered. In comparison with our counterparts elsewhere in Europe, we have slid into summer deprivation with the best of intentions. Perhaps we could emulate the assertive Scandinavians, for whom midsummer is sacred and academics are mainly incommunicado from then until sometime in August. Or we could take a lead from France, where the cities empty for the entire month of August. On reflection, I don't think "August event" translates into French.

Personally, I'd settle for a mois d'août a la française.

Michael Kelly is professor of French at the University of Southampton and director of the Subject Centre for Languages, Linguistics and Area Studies.

• Next week: Valerie Atkinson on why, in the summertime, the living is still easy for academics

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