Academic workload models: a tool to exploit staff and cut costs?

Survey reveals many staff in UK universities are sceptical about the value of workload models

February 6, 2019
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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.

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Reader's comments (5)

So the 'academics' notional and nominal 35 hour week is, as we know only too well, a joke. But spare a thought for those who whilst not being regarded as 'academics', with all the associated benefits accorded to them, teach not only to cover absent academics but are tasked with key course delivery teaching over and above their job description described technician role that they also have to deliver. The really sneaky universities actually upgraded technicians from relatively low pay grades with compulsory overtime to the lowest accrel grade without overtime to save money whilst exploiting their staff and increasing the number of hours required, that 'notional and nominal' being qualified by the 'as required' sting in the tail.
'Academic related' staff get a rough deal everywhere. Often performing work indistinguishable from academics', they are denied the perks (sabbatical, access to research funding, etc), the voice in 'collegial governance', and the autonomy of academics and are treated as an underclass.
"Some staff were so unhappy about their workload model... – that they had considered quitting over the unfairness" Gosh, they must have been seriously upset. I wonder how many actually did?
I am a full professor. I have been teaching for 18 years and get paid about twice what lecturers' are paid. But I have the same allowances on the workload model for course prep, student supervision, and research. My full professor colleagues use the workload model to load up the junior faculty to where they can barely breathe. And they are obsessed with keeping track of their every hour. Where are the citizenship behaviours counted? Workload models are not bad in theory but have been executed poorly, but still a bureaucrat's dream.
I have many years experience as an academic in universities and find the article and illustration captures the experience of academic life succinctly. Staff can work beyond the 50 hrs described and cliques can make life unbearable. The political aspects of academic life can drain the enjoyment out of work and certainly impact on health and well-being. Workloads are generally unmanageable with many unrelated activities to contend with. Personalities are often a key factor regarding organising workloads and generally without any objective reasoning underpinning the allocation of work.