Spiralling workloads stifle staff retention

November 2, 2006

Learned societies fear for recruitment as demands on academics rocket, say Anthea Lipsett and Tony Tysome.

Academic recruitment and retention will suffer as staff struggle to balance the triple pressures of increased teaching, research and red tape, scholarly bodies warned this week.

The warning from learned societies comes as two reports revealed this week how scholarly work is being distorted and academics polarised by pressure to teach more, to satisfy fee-paying students and to deliver top-quality work for the research assessment exercise - all as the burden of bureaucracy grows ever heavier.

According to findings by the Higher Education Policy Institute there is now a gulf between the working practices of academics at new universities and those in the pre-92 sector. Academics at new institutions are expected to teach more while counterparts in old institutions immerse themselves in research, according to Hepi.

At new universities, tutorial and seminar groups are now generally smaller and are taken by academics. In old universities, postgraduate and postdoctoral students are being drafted in to lead classes vacated by research-active academics, Hepi found.

The Hepi report also reveals marked differences between the amount of time academics in different subjects spend teaching, with scientists and engineers delivering the most contact hours.

Academic bodies have warned that rising teaching and administrative demands could harm recruitment, particularly in the sciences. Matthew Harrison, director of education programmes at the Royal Academy of Engineering, said:

"If you're busy in classes, research is difficult. But you have to find space for your research around everything else. It's difficult to recruit people with industrial and research experience if they are going to spend a lot of time doing admin and teaching."

Cliff Allan, deputy chief executive of the Higher Education Academy, which funded the Hepi report, said: "Academics do an excellent job in balancing the different demands on their skills and time. However we need to make sure that expectations placed on them are realistic and that the net impact is to improve learning."

Libby Steele, higher education manager at the Royal Society of Chemistry, said that long hours and underfunding would inevitably harm recruitment and retention in chemistry departments. "It is demotivating to not be able to deliver the quality of teaching that they have the potential to deliver due to lack of funds."

Michael Driscoll, chair of Campaigning for Mainstream Universities, said:

"The Government must now ensure that the unit of resource for teaching is valued as highly as that for research and accept that the current RAE process drives a wedge between teaching and research, which disadvantages students and staff alike."

Malcolm Grant, president and provost of University College London and chair of the Russell Group, said: "Such reports are always interesting, but very often they simply record long-standing differences in the nature and organisation of subjects."

Meanwhile, a University and College Union poll, carried out by YouGov, shows that while half of lecturers now spend ten hours or fewer a week with students, a third are saddled with paperwork for at least 16 hours a week.

The survey indicates that more than a third of academics feel that conducting research is the most rewarding aspect of their job; another third find interacting with students fulfilling, and 10 per cent enjoy lecturing most.

Despite the growing pressures, academics remain resilient. Two thirds of the 1,000-plus UCU members surveyed this summer described their morale as "average", "good" or "very good".

Just over two thirds said they would not retire from their current job now if they could, and nearly half would recommend a career in higher education to their children.

But the imbalance between research, teaching and bureaucracy has made many consider leaving the UK academy. Just over half of academics who responded to the poll said they had thought of quitting the profession for the private sector, and two thirds said they had considered taking a higher education job abroad.

Sally Hunt, UCU joint general secretary, told The Times Higher : "It is that clear academics are incredibly committed to their job. That they stick to it against all the odds tells you that this is a commitment born of a passion for research and teaching. But the survey shows that regardless of what we are told about extra resources going into higher education, there is a major issue about the level of support academics receive."

Ms Hunt said that to resolve the problem and prevent a staff exodus, institutions had to build a more supportive infrastructure and reduce academics' administrative workloads.

tony.tysome@thes.co.uk

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