How do academics spend their time? Filling out forms about how they spend their time ..

August 2, 2012

A survey was recently undertaken to discover how much time academics spend filling out the form that asks them to list how much time they spend on each of their activities.

That might sound like a Kafkaesque nightmare of life trapped inside a vast, enveloping bureaucracy - but it is just a report for the Higher Education Funding Council for England on the Transparent Approach to Costing (Trac).

Trac - introduced in 2000 to make universities demonstrate accountability for public funding by showing the annual cost of their teaching, research and other key activities - includes time-allocation surveys that are often derided by academics as the ultimate embodiment of pointless bureaucracy in the sector.

"Deeply flawed", "inoperable" and "garbage" was how one letter-writer to Times Higher Education described Trac in 2009, arguing that academics' work did not fall into discrete categories and could not be divided into typical working weeks.

But the accountancy firm KPMG has reviewed time-allocation methods for Hefce's Trac Development Group. Its report gives a more positive impression - and has a serious message about "more punitive requirements" if academics do not buy in to the process.

In a statement to accompany the study, Review of Time Allocation Methods, which was published last month, Hefce says that "time-allocation processes have evolved, and are becoming accepted as the norm across a large number of institutions in the sector".

The study, which was based on institutional surveys and visits, says the actual burden created by time-allocation surveys is "not significant for academic staff", amounting to approximately two hours a year (or 0.14 per cent of their time).

The average burden of processing the surveys for university administrative teams is about 42 hours a year, it adds.

Meanwhile, the cost of time allocation across the sector comes to £11 million, just 0.1 per cent of total academic salary costs, the report notes.

However, 29 per cent of the institutions surveyed report that the administrative burden of time allocation is "excessively high".

The report notes the importance of Trac, whose methodology is used by the English and Scottish funding councils in their allocation of teaching cash. Trac also "forms the basis" for costing grant applications to the research councils, the report adds.

"It is important that the sector understands that there is a risk of more punitive requirements being imposed on it if the reported credibility of the Trac and time-allocation data does not improve," the report says.

The Trac Development Group and Research Councils UK "have become aware that the time-allocation data remains an area of debate and scepticism, which can reduce the credibility of the Trac data", the report says.

Some universities are also using Trac data "for things like internal costings and departmental performance", the report adds, with the time-survey information "being used for purposes other than Trac in 44 per cent of institutions".

The report concludes: "Time-allocation methods permitted by the Trac guidance are appropriate, but greater emphasis needs to be placed on the implementation and communication of these methods to optimise their success."

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