Who shrunk the year?

August 11, 2006

Endless summer months are a distant memory for Deian Hopkin.

Rather a long time ago, when I began my academic career, there were distinct seasons to the academic year. Teaching over autumn and winter, revision and examinations in early summer, and then the welcome months of research, contemplation and writing until late September. Summer was a time to meet academic colleagues at conferences, to discover new wonders at the Public Record Office or the National Library of Wales, or engage in a frenzied attempt to finish that book review or meet that deadline or start something new. The departmental mailbox was generally empty, like the department itself. There were modest family holidays, and the summer fizzled out in frustration as the promised race to the finish became a mere canter.

Since I was transformed from scholar to academic manager, these seasons have largely disappeared. Summer months have merged with the rest of the year as the conveyor belt of meetings, diary engagements, talks, presentations and reports rolls relentlessly forward. July is year end, September year start, August an in-between month for rescheduling and generally fitting things in. In any case, the gap between graduation ceremonies and clearing is barely three weeks.

Even if the pace of activity within the university itself moderates a little, the outside world continues to demand our attention. The corporate rituals of local government, civil service and the commercial world do not respect holidays, while international visitors expect to be received whatever month it is. Like the football season, our year seems to start almost as soon as it has finished.

Is this true of everyone? It's difficult to tell, but certainly in my kind of university the pace of academic life, the demands of regulation, the increasing expectation of client groups of all kinds, not to mention the demands of clearing and resits, mean that most of my colleagues have seen a steady reduction in the apparent length of the year.

I have to admit, at the same time, that my past experience may also have been particular to my discipline. My scientific colleagues would doubtless argue that their seasons were very different from those of the historian or classicist. They were always managers as well as academics, dealing with physical and human resources across the entire year in a way that I never appreciated. I do now.

One problem I never had before, though, is since there are no clear seasons, how on earth am I going to use up my annual leave?

Deian Hopkin is vice-chancellor of London South Bank University.

Next week: Joe Baden

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