'You want jobsworths? Then pay us what the job's worth'

Liverpool Hope's nine-to-five plans prompt debate about academics' working lives, writes Ciaran Jones

September 10, 2009

Academic work has never been a nine-to-five job, but when Times Higher Education reported one university's plans to force staff to work on campus for 35 hours a week, it sparked a vociferous general debate about academics' working lives.

It was clear from the arguments that although academics may willingly forgo the perks and high salaries of some professions, they are fiercely protective of their autonomy and the laissez-faire relationship they have traditionally enjoyed with employers.

Some lamented the rise of a "consumer" approach to higher education across the sector, while others said academics should join "the real world".

On the Times Higher Education website, one reader said: "About time that someone makes a stand against the lazy academics out there. How many are paid for a full-time job they simply don't do?"

This prompted a succession of responses from lecturers, who said that the demands of research, teaching and administrative duties meant that "working 60 hours a week is not unknown".

Others said the edict, implemented at Liverpool Hope University, was an example of the erosion of the freedom that academics historically have been granted to manage their time.

"It's because of that perk, more than anything else, that we've accepted comparatively low pay for so long," one said. "If you're going to turn us into jobsworths, then pay us what the job's worth."

This argument did not hold water with everyone, however. One student responded: "I have no interest or sympathy in academic tradition, and I find the overly defensive attitude taken by academics rather silly.

"Liverpool Hope's reasoning is completely legitimate, and it seems some people are in need of a reality check."

Academics have also questioned the viability of the proposals, suggesting that university office spaces can sometimes be underequipped, uncomfortable and not conducive to scholarly research.

They added that the need to work late into the evening and during weekends also meant that working mainly on site was problematic.

One academic spied conspiracies in the concept and said: "This kind of invasive micromanaging is often done with the intent to reduce the productivity of an academic because others in the department do not want to be outshone by a high achiever."

The significance of research was hotly disputed, with a gulf opening between those who saw it as the primary objective of an academic career and others who argued that lecturers should "remember that they are first and foremost tutors, not overpaid 'researchers'".

Another commentator sniped: "Anyone who actually knows an 'academic' is fully aware of the easy ride many of them have."

But at least one person looked on the bright side: "Liverpool Hope's staff will attain international levels of excellence in FreeCell, Mah-jong, Solitaire and Minesweeper."

- For more on the debate, see: http://tinyurl.com/mggjww

'A SLEDGEHAMMER TO CRACK A FEW NUTS': WEB READERS RESPOND

This is a selection from more than 100 comments posted on our website in response to the plans:

- "Universities must recognise that if they want factory-based education, they will get factory workers. If they want imaginative and creative professionals, they must treat staff in imaginative and creative ways."

- "We are all trying to reduce our carbon footprints, so forcing people to turn up to work when they could be doing the same work as well or better at home is just plain wrong."

- "I pay more than £3,000 for ten hours of contact time a week, and of those only six are actual lectures ... Liverpool Hope's reasoning is completely legitimate, and it seems some people are in need of a reality check ... It is not unreasonable to seek help from those who are qualified, and paid, to guide you."

- "What counts is how universities perform en masse, rather than a bean-counting exercise that focuses on whether academic staff are in the department at 9am on the dot."

- "Anyone who actually knows an 'academic' is fully aware of the easy ride many of them have ... Hard work? You don't know you are born. The real world would not tolerate the lazy ones, heaven only knows why the sector does."

- "Typical management practice. Rather than personally deal with the minority of absent lecturers, their supposed managers impose a sledgehammer to crack a few nuts."

- "Since, in the interests of productivity, I and many of my colleagues have to work at home (sometimes quite a lot), and since those 'at home' days are almost inevitably longer than the 'in the office' days, I think some transparency about this issue is overdue.

"We have to have computers, broadband connection and dedicated office space at home just to do our jobs, since the facilities at work impede us (computers don't work, no air conditioning, etc).

"So we should be charging for the facilities we provide - likewise, the laptops we need to use but provide out of our own pockets."

Join the debate at www.timeshighereducation.co.uk.

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