A tough break

August 18, 2000

After 20 years as a university administrator, I was a little surprised by your item on the difficulties that academics find in taking their annual holidays ("A holiday - what's that?" THES, August 11).

Ten years ago, one of the most energetic men I have ever known was appointed head of an academic department. He was stunned to discover that teaching was so organised that three supposedly full-time lecturers came to the campus on just one day a week in term time only, that is, fewer than 30 days a year. Between them, they had produced one brief research paper in the previous five years.

When he reorganised the timetable to require their presence rather more often, one wept in his office, accusing him of being a cruel man who was destroying her life, a view for which there was considerable support in the department.

Semesterisation in many of the old universities has reduced the teaching year from 30 to 24 weeks, less a "reading week" or two and, perhaps, a Wednesday start and finish to the semester, meaning student contact on not much more than 20 weeks, leaving 32 weeks for research and holidays. Even the 20 weeks is usually rather less intensive than school teaching.

Two years ago, one of my friends, who was lecturing in a university business school after 20 years in commerce, was offered a senior lectureship elsewhere provided that he could start at the beginning of the academic year. When his head of department refused to release him from his contract, which finished at Christmas, I expressed sympathy at his being unable to accept the promotion.

"No problem at all," he said. "I will do both jobs for the term. I will still put in more effort in each place than most of these idle buggers who have never done a real day's work in their lives. The double pay will come in handy, too."

I take a rather less critical view as I know some academics who work a great deal harder than I have ever done, but I still suspect that there is a substantial minority whose annual holiday is closer to 35 weeks than the 35 days to which you suggest they are entitled.

Robert Walls Camberley, Surrey

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