Unpaid overtime is sustaining higher education, according to early results from the Treasury-driven transparency review of spending in British universities and colleges.
Institutions that have carried out surveys of staff hours have reported that lecturers and researchers in effect work a six-day week, with senior staff working even longer hours.
"The only thing keeping higher education going is academics working their balls off. On average, 55 hours a week is about right. At the top end, people are working 70 hours a week," said Stephen Paterson, director of finance at Heriot-Watt University.
Rodney Eastwood, director of planning at Imperial College, London, said:
"When we surveyed staff hours in 1991-92, we found that academic staff, on average, worked 50 hours a week, with professors working more than 54 hours. We expect to see that the numbers have increased since then."
The Association of University Teachers said that the initial results were consistent with a survey it conducted in 1994, which showed that academic staff in the old universities worked an average 55-hour week in term-time and a 53-hour week in a working vacation.
The figures have raised the issue of how working hours should be calculated - the data exclude "thinking time" spent away from desks - and the extent to which academic staff chose to work long hours.
Michael Worton, vice-provost of University College London, said: "It is about making choices. There is a self-driven agenda - someone who wants to write an important article is going to put in long hours. We have got to ensure people make self-driven choices not externally driven ones."
Not only is research being subsidised by staff working long hours - teaching is too, according to Professor Worton.
The early results on staff time are emerging from institutions that have already completed surveys. Heriot-Watt University and Imperial College asked staff to list their working patterns over several 24-hour periods selected at random from weeks thought to be typical of the annual activity at a traditional university.
Eight pilot institutions - Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff, Portsmouth, Surrey, Strathclyde and Warwick universities, plus University College London - have completed a retrospective study of the proportions of staff time spent on different activities for the year beginning in September 1998. The eight are due to hold a final data-sharing meeting next week and will publish the findings in July.
The average working week could reach 60 hours - equivalent to working ten hours a day for six days each week - according to some estimates. None of the pilot institutions contacted by The THES expressed any surprise at the working hours quoted by Heriot-Watt and Imperial.
From September, all institutions must identify the proportion of time that staff spend on publicly funded teaching, privately funded teaching, publicly funded research, privately funded research and other activities. At present, universities report income rather than expenditure on teaching and research.
"What comes screaming out from these figures is that research is underfunded. When you add in a reasonable cost factor for maintenance, the numbers coming out show that it is unsustainable. Both public and private-sector research lose money," Mr Paterson said.
Dr Eastwood said that the 1991-92 costing exercise had shown that the college relied on staff putting in extra hours to compensate for the fact that most research grants do not pay full overheads.
A report from JM Consulting compiled in February found that more research is being conducted than funded in British universities.
The report identified four possible ways in which institutions could be subsidising research: that academics are making time for research by working longer hours, some of which are in effect unpaid; that universities could be skimping on maintenance work to fund research; that teaching grants might be used to subsidise research; or that cash from other income sources could be paying for the research.
The transparency review of research funding grew out of the 1998 spending review in which higher education claimed research was underfunded but was unable to demonstrate numerical proof.
When the shortfall is formally identified, universities will be looking to government to fund it.
Malcolm Ace, head of finance at Portsmouth University, said: "This is a government-inspired review of costings. If and when institutions meet government standards of transparency and accountability, there must be some expectation that government will make a concession and the identified costs will be met."
Mr Paterson said:"If others are properly funded in the global marketplace and we are not, then we will not be able to compete."
Undervalued researchers, page 4; Opinion, page 14