The four-day week: will it catch on in academia?

Some institutions now follow the model, but experts question whether it will benefit a sector where 24/7 culture is ingrained

April 18, 2019
Source: Getty

Many academics have come out as strong advocates for the four-day working week, with studies highlighting benefits from increased productivity to improved mental health and work-life balance. But could universities benefit by following the model?

The University of Mobile, a private, Baptist-affiliated institution in Alabama, introduced the arrangement two years ago as part of an initiative dubbed “Focus Fridays”. Academics and staff work a 35-hour week, with classes timetabled from Mondays to Thursdays and professional staff rotating days off. 

Students are encouraged to spend Fridays volunteering in the community, socialising with classmates, doing internships or working to pay for their education.

Meanwhile, for employees “the four-day academic week represents an opportunity for balance”, said Chris McCaghren, the university’s provost.

“I had one of our English professors tell me she was reading for fun for the first time in years. The irony, and the applicability, of that statement has stayed with me,” Dr McCaghren added.

Fred Wilson, the university’s president, added that the institution has “seen productivity increase, even though people are working less hours in total” and the model is “an attractive benefit for recruiting students and retaining employees”.

Across the pond, the UK’s Wellcome Trust had been considering moving all of its 800 head office staff to a four-day week in a bid to improve “welfare and productivity”. However, the biomedical research charity said this week that following “internal consultation” it would not be pursuing the idea, as it would be “too operationally complex”.

But Gregor Gall, affiliate research associate at the University of Glasgow and an expert in industrial relations, cautioned that “for academic staff, most would find it impossible to do all their work within four days given that they cannot manage it in five eight-hour days and so work their evenings and weekends, and don’t take all their holidays.

“For academic staff seeking to make their mark on their subject and get promoted for doing so, individually they would only pay lip service to it.”

Paul Hill, founder of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington-Bothell, has studied the impact of a four-day week on rural primary and secondary schools in the US.

“Its appeal in rural areas is that it gives teachers and students’ families a weekday to travel to cities to see doctors, do necessary shopping etc,” he said.

However, students and academics in higher education have “looser schedules” and “enough flexibility to attend to their own needs and those of their children”, he claimed.

In fact, “some universities are concerned that their immense physical plants are underused, and are wondering whether to expand their faculties and student bodies by operating seven days each week”, he said. 

ellie.bothwell@timeshighereducation.com

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Will a short week help academics?

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Reader's comments (1)

Though if Fridays were kept free from teaching, tutorials, formal meetings etc., that would give academics a guaranteed day to do research (or teaching prep, or marking or whatever)

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