Feeling annoyed about high levels of teaching or administrative activities assigned under your “fair and transparent” workload model? If so, you are probably not alone, according to research that reveals widespread unhappiness about how tasks are shared out within universities.
Almost half of academics (45 per cent) believe that workload models are designed to exploit them or to cut costs, while only 7 per cent see the tools as intended primarily to support staff well-being, according to a paper in the Journal of Organizational Behavior.
The study, based on a survey of 347 academic staff in UK universities, also found that just 16 per cent of staff felt that their workload model had helped to make them more efficient.
Some staff were so unhappy about their workload model – the process that identifies different activities in a role and assigns an agreed time budget to them – that they had considered quitting over the unfairness, Julia Mundy, one of the report’s authors, told Times Higher Education.
“Many people felt their universities were using their workload models to squeeze more and more work out of people,” explained Dr Mundy, principal lecturer in management control and performance at the University of Greenwich. She worked on the project, which was partly funded by the British Academy and the Leverhulme Trust, with Rebecca Hewett from Erasmus University Rotterdam and Trinity College Dublin’s Amanda Shantz.
Under standard workload models, each task or activity in a given role, such as an hour-long seminar or lecture, is assigned a number of points by university managers, who then specify the total number of points that an individual must achieve over the course of the academic year.
But many respondents complained that universities had arbitrarily reduced the number of points associated with tasks, in effect “devaluing the currency” of hours worked, explained Dr Mundy.
“There is a feeling that the changes only ever worked against staff – one year they might be doing enough to reach their points total, but would find they’d be falling short the next year despite doing exactly the same amount of work,” she said.
Reducing the points associated with teaching preparation and marking was highlighted by several respondents as a factor in their working as many as 60 to 70 hours a week, Dr Mundy added.
“Given that many academics are working more than 50 hours a week, it would seem that the workload models are not really based on a 35-hour working week,” she said.
One respondent complained: “The university financial model is based on the fact that every member of staff will do above and beyond what they are contracted to do, so hours and workload models become meaningless.”
Others said that managers used workload models to reward their “pets” by allocating high numbers of points to relatively easy tasks assigned to those in “their cliques” while giving low point scores to more onerous jobs that fell to others. Some mandatory tasks – such as personal tutoring, attending conferences and applying for research grants – were left out of workload models altogether, others said.
Despite considerable dissatisfaction with workload models, few staff wanted to get rid of them completely, said Dr Mundy.
But universities ought to be more open about them, explaining their underlying logic, and workload models should be reviewed if they did not lead to improved staff outcomes or well-being, she argued.
“Many universities are simply not communicating their intentions [behind workload models] at all, leaving it to their employees to assume a more sinister purpose,” Dr Mundy said.