Headed for frustration

August 31, 2007

Academics agree to become heads of department hoping to gain more time for their own research but find themselves miserable and overworked trying to manage people and timetables, the British Educational Research Association conference will hear next week.

Alan Floyd, who is undertaking a PhD in educational management at Leicester University, has studied the career histories of heads of department at a "fairly big" modern university.

"None of the people I interviewed went into higher education to become a manager," he said of his initial findings.

Many heads of department he spoke with had deliberately taken on a management role to try to dictate their own workloads, such as reducing their teaching load and creating more time for research. "What they then find is that they do not have the time to do what they set out to do," Mr Floyd said.

For some, the costs outweighed the benefits of being a head of department and they were reaching a "crisis point, where people weigh up their personal and professional values and make a decision as to whether it is worthwhile being in the role", he said.

Several of the academics he interviewed, who had perhaps wanted to be able to make a difference in teaching and research practice, found that "they have got responsibility but no real resources". They were tied up with managing conflict, difficult people, timetabling and workload. "They are having to spend more time on the aspects of the job that they least like," he said.

One head told Mr Floyd that he felt he had been "de-skilled" because his time spent in management would make it hard to return to high-level research.

Others described feeling as though they had lost their professional identity as academics and, after being promoted from within their departments, found managing former colleagues difficult. "They can become quite isolated," Mr Floyd said.

There was also some indication of long hours contributing to a decline in work-life balance and increased stress.

None of the heads in the study had made a firm decision to quit their post. Some felt that family commitments were keeping them at the institution, while others felt trapped by expectations. "There is the idea of the expected career path for the academic... the expectation that (management) is the next step up and this is the kind of mapped-out career path that you have to follow," Mr Floyd said.

"Once you move up to that level it probably is. It's almost part of the job role. The benefits presumably are more money, more kudos perhaps. But once you move up to that level, it probably is more difficult to move away."

A spokesperson responding on behalf of Universities UK and the Universities and Colleges Employers Association said: "We encourage all institutions to provide the necessary staff development and training to uphold the high standards of management, teaching and research across the sector."

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