Corporate push spawns 24/7 culture

March 23, 2007

Demands on academics at work and beyond are rising, Tony Tysome and Phil Baty report

A new breed of academic on call at all hours is emerging in response to a corporate revolution in higher education.

Rising student numbers and the arrival of corporate-style human resource management in the sector, combined with a customer-focused approach to students, mean that academics have to be constantly available to managers and students, according to union leaders and academics.

They say that the traditional freedom and self-direction of academic life - a highly valued aspect of the job - is being sacrificed to a desk-bound approach, with "presenteeism" taking over from flexibility. When staff are allowed to be away from their desks, they complain of being prevented from getting on with the job by an endless barrage of phone calls, messages and e-mails.

But others argued this week that academics had to enter the "real world", where such demands were entirely normal.

Paul Temple, senior lecturer in higher education management at the Institute of Education, said: "Some of the complaints may be from academics who have never had a job in the real world, where organisations make great demands on employees... I don't think it has got to that level yet in higher education."

Universities invested heavily in recruiting a new generation of human resources managers between 2000 and 2006, drawing on the £880 million staff development fund, and they are making staff much more accountable.

Late last year, the Universities and Colleges Employers Association said that 81 per cent of institutions were introducing new staff "performance management" systems.

Documents leaked to The Times Higher this week reveal plans by Leeds Metropolitan University to impose a set of staff "behaviours" - including an expectation that staff will "go the extra mile", as well as be "co-operative" - leading to claims that the university is undermining academics' independence.

Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, said:

"Universities are learning environments, not widget factories... academics need to be trusted to get on with their jobs."

Roger Kline, UCU's head of employment, added that academics "are being required to spend much more time visibly present in their office" to meet growing managerial demands.

Tom Hickey, a philosophy lecturer at Brighton University, said students "have become consumers of a service and expect instant access to their service providers. But if you are constantly on call, how can you be expected to keep on top of your field?"

Harjinder Lallie, a theologian at Derby University, said: "The fact that no one is knocking on my door every two hours asking what I am doing allows me to work in ways that would not be possible in industry. Without that flexibility, I think thousands would leave the sector."

A spokesman for Ucea said: "There has been an increase in flexible working arrangements across the sector in recent years, and everyone working in higher education will no doubt be aware that there are peaks and troughs of workload and responsibility, particularly in term time."

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