Groves of academe no bed of roses

February 28, 1997

It is part of popular mythology that university teachers lead cushy lives. Their working days in pleasing quadrangles are short and stimulating. Their holidays and High Table dinners are long and leisured. What more could they want?

The reality is somewhat different. One of the factors contributing to the recent university pay dispute was resentment that increased "productivity" has not been matched by increased pay or staffing levels. Staff:student ratios have worsened. The rise of the quality culture has eaten up enormous amounts of time and paper.

A 1994 diary survey by the Association of University Teachers of academic staff in the old universities showed they worked an average 55 hours a week in term-time, and 51 hours in a working vacation week. Administration occupied 33 per cent of their time.

Workload increased with seniority. Male professors, for example, worked 60 hours a week in term-time and 57 hours in the vacation. A survey, also in 1994, of academic staff in the new universities showed lecturers working 47 hours a week, senior lecturers 51 hours and heads of department 55 hours.

As a point of comparison, the Robbins Report in 1963 found lecturers worked 40.5 hours a week on average in term-time. The survey by the Committee of Vice Chancellors and Principals in 1969/70 showed academics working 50.5 hours a week. The amount of administration by academic staff in term-time grew from 11 per cent of the week in 1963 to one-third by 1994.

These data present a real or potential problem of overwork. With overwork comes stress and related ill health. In 1995/96, Loughborough University and the local AUT negotiated an agreement which set out principles for managing staff time and open allocation of duties. Teaching outside the teaching week would be subject to consultation. Staff should not have to teach more than two hours on the trot, and they should expect a one-hour lunch break.

These agreements, and others like them, are negotiated at institution level in the old universities. They are deliberately vague, and rely on the goodwill of heads of department. They also depend on the willingness of the 50-hour-week brigade to regulate themselves, and speak out when they feel under too much stress.

A top-down solution is currently taking shape in the form of the European Union's working time directive. Last November, the European Court of Justice rejected the Government's challenge to the directive. The Government has vowed to continue the fight in the Intergovernmental Conference but for now the Department of Trade and Industry is taking steps to implement it.

The directive had a direct effect on employees of "emanations of the state" such as the civil service and local authorities, from last November. If universities are also "emanations of the state", then their staff are already covered by the directive. If not, then staff will be covered after the consultation period. This will mean that employees will be entitled to a 48-hour maximum working week, normally averaged out over a period of up to four months.

There is still a lot of small print to deal with. The employee needs to be "at the employer's disposal" during working time. Time spent working at home out of office hours may not count. Britain may be able to opt out of the 48-hour week for employees whose "working time is not measured and/or predetermined".

For academic staff who do not want to work themselves into the ground, the 48-hour week maximum may be their answer. But they need to make a strong case for inclusion under the directive. And they need to do that quickly.

Stephen Court is a researcher at the Association of University Teachers. He writes in a personal capacity.

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