Finding ways to calm the wild waters that threaten to submerge staff

A workload allocation system can benefit everyone in a university, so long as it is transparent, trusted and equitable, argues Peter Barrett

May 27, 2010

Working in a university can feel like being swept overboard in a high sea, prey to tidal change and chilling waters. A common response has often been to band together, forming larger schools to hold sway. With this comes another danger that we jointly seem to abhor, the rise of the dreaded "bureaucracy". Into this you can now factor in one more seemingly low-level aspect - workload allocation systems. These are increasingly capturing interest because of their potential to ensure that work is shared out equitably and transparently; and to manage resources more effectively.

Yes, there is a danger that these systems can feed into managerialist manifestos that threaten to overshadow the purpose for which they were ostensibly designed. But to avoid this, staff need to engage actively to ensure their system works with integrity, subtly optimising the use of resources for the benefit of staff and students and highlighting situations where resources are patently mismatched to the demands being faced. Is this a utopian dream? Perhaps, but a dream where systems can work at the level of the individual to support their choices in work situations; help to link individual decisions to strategic aspirations; and help to build clear, open, fairer practices where some willing people are not dumped with every odd job that comes along. A dream where universities can not only use their systems to ensure that their staff are not overloaded, but also help to meet health and safety aims; to ensure that particular groups are not subject to discriminatory practices; and, of course, to operate more efficiently.

In fact, these changes are beginning to happen. After a decade of crude simplification of the structures of many universities, the pressure of managing these larger units is leading inevitably to a formalisation of workload allocation systems. Compounded by significant financial pressures, this is beginning to move from a department-based cottage industry to an institutional issue. This need not lead to an "old-manufacturing" style top-down approach, but with finesse can quite easily bring about the above benefits. To do this, the approach has to devolve most of the choice and decision-making to the department where the knowledge about individuals lies and where, as many surveys have shown, there is at least a modicum of trust in the "managers". The approach should be confidently transparent and "roughly right rather than precisely wrong". Plus or minus 10 per cent is fine and avoids the fallacy that just because finite time and numbers are involved it must be very accurate. The system can then allow information to be gathered across the institution providing a degree of oversight so that the most random allocations can at least be questioned and, more important, really useful analyses can be carried out.

For example, just a few universities link this type of staff information to their financial systems and produce meaningful activity costing information. This is not always palatable, but at least it shows up accidental cross-subsidising so that it can become an explicit choice. One or two universities automatically meet their Transparent Approach to Costing (Trac) reporting requirements this way, rather than through ineffective sample surveys. And, after ten years of deliberation, this approach is now being mildly encouraged by the Higher Education Funding Council for England.

More than this, some universities are starting to use seriously this sort of workload information to assess equality issues. This may seem odd, but in a recent paper the argument is made that the low-level activity of workload allocation is actually cumulatively pivotal to staff promotion prospects. For example, if women make early career choices, say to take on fractional contracts, but these preclude research or administrative activity, it will have profound long-term effects - instead of a career in the slow lane, it could mean ending up in a cul-de-sac.

Many see the management of academic workloads as a technical issue, concerning "the spreadsheet" and how it is structured. In fact, this is not actually very difficult. For example, a tried-and-tested system that has been in use for more than 10 years is being made available as open-source software via What is difficult is the social dimension that will run in parallel with the technical aspect. Seeking consensus among staff as to what is equitable, and jointly agreeing how this will be measured and represented, does take leadership.

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