Commuting: a life sentence for academics

Efforts to improve work-life balance must address the significant amounts of time that many scholars spend travelling, says Rachel Moss

February 28, 2019
commuter-academic
Source: David Parkins

I recently sent an email from my University of Oxford account to a historian based at the University of Birmingham. “I live in Birmingham, not Oxford,” I wrote, “so perhaps we could discuss this over coffee!” She replied that this was a great idea – although she actually lives in London.

This didn’t strike me as particularly unusual. Although I have worked at Oxford since 2011, I have never lived closer than 70 miles away from the city, and I have many colleagues in similar situations. So, that evening, I posted a tweet asking UK academics to let me know if they live at least a 90-minute journey away from their university, and how that impacts on their lives. I received nearly 300 replies, as well as several emails and direct messages from people who wanted to talk more privately.

According to research by academics at the University of the West of England, the average Briton commutes for an hour each day: more than anywhere else in Europe. Despite this, only one in seven people regularly commutes for over two hours a day. My respondents’ commutes range from 90 minutes across one large city to 12 hours of international travel. Most seem to be making a journey like mine: up to two hours door-to-door, between UK cities.

Despite complaints about the cost and delays, trains seem the most popular option because the travel time can be used to work; I regularly use my 70-minute journey to mark essays, and several colleagues use their commutes to catch up on emails or reading. When people drive, it’s usually because of a lack of reliable public transport options.

Long commutes are particularly common for early career researchers. If you are on a fixed-term contract, it often doesn’t make sense to uproot your family to move to a new city. When my husband was offered a permanent job in Birmingham in 2014, I was just about to start a new fixed-term research contract, so we decided to move there. One of my respondents, Luke John Murphy, did his PhD in Denmark, where his partner still lives. He now has a two-year position at the University of Leicester and divides his time between there and Aarhus.

The problem is that, given the current state of the academic job market, it may take so long to finally score that coveted permanent job that by the time you do, your family is well established in a distant city. Another of my respondents, Siobhan Talbott, was still studying for her PhD when her husband got a permanent post at the University of Liverpool. So they bought a house in Liverpool while she commuted for three years to a temporary job at the University of Manchester. Now she is a senior lecturer at Keele University, but they have a child and their support network in Liverpool is well established, so it makes sense for them to stay there.

The cost of commuting can be high, both literally and figuratively. Even if a couple split the difference and live between their two places of employment, the costs and distances involved can be formidable. Tom Hill, another respondent, spends £4,500 a year on train tickets travelling between his home in Buckinghamshire and his job at the National History Museum in London, while his wife commutes to her academic job in Birmingham. The UWE study found that adding an extra 20 minutes to a daily commute has a similar effect on job satisfaction to taking a 19 per cent pay cut, and several respondents complained to me that their lengthy commutes contribute to problems such as raised blood pressure, weight gain and sleep deprivation.

Of course, compared with workers in many other industries, academics often have more opportunities to adapt their work schedules. For instance, this term I am compressing all my teaching hours into one (long!) day, while outside term time I need to make only occasional trips to Oxford. However, many of my respondents (not those quoted above) reported that they have found it frustratingly difficult to elicit such accommodations. Several lecturers said that even if their line managers were sympathetic, central timetabling makes it nearly impossible to request a teaching schedule that reflects their needs – a problem compounded by timetables often being finalised only a few days before the start of a new semester. Meanwhile, even though it is a statutory right to request flexible working, some academics have experienced pushback. One university responded to a request to compress teaching hours by suggesting that the academic in question should drop to a 0.8 contract instead. Another refused to allow a lecturer to request that his regular research day should be on a Monday or Friday.

With half of all academics reporting stress-related illnesses, many UK universities are currently allocating resources to improve health and well-being. But if they are sincere about wanting to improve work-life balance, they need to consider the commuter burden – and work meaningfully with their staff to mitigate its effects.

Rachel Moss is a tutor in continuing education at the University of Oxford. She is about to become a lecturer in history at the University of Northampton, which will save 20 minutes of daily commuting.

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POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: Torn between two loci

Reader's comments (8)

Completely agree, and equally valid for the professional members of staff too
It isn't always an easy decision. I turned down two jobs (when I had been made redundant so really needed a job!) both 100+ miles from home in cities I would not want my family to be located in. I had applied frankly in the hope that I might be able to work a compressed week onsite, and at least one day at home - say Friday. My hopes were dashed in both cases by the asssertion by the Management school that I would be expected to teach MBA students on Saturdays.
This isn't limited to universities - many, many people in industries all over the UK (and wider) have to face this. I personally had a 3hr commute to a work in London 2 days a week, then a day in Leeds, followed by a day at the office base and one wherever I was sent to by my company. I didn't really have a choice where I had to work BUT I knew I was paid to do that job and I chose where I lived between all this, I chose the timing of having children and how to sort their care, plus how I decided the type of commute (train, car, etc). Sometimes I stayed over in hotels, other times I did a 6 hour round trip with an 8hr working day in the middle. I did similar patterns for 10 years and then realized I wanted something different. I looked to my employer to make changes to accommodate me but they couldn't, but frankly why should they? I took the job and I knew the impact and they needed someone to fulfill a specific role in the organization. Then a well meaning friend reminded me I wasn't a tree and I wasn't rooted to the spot, I could also choose to walk into something different. I decided to change tact in my career and now am much more settled. It took three years of planning to make the change and this included getting an MBA. Although I'm not an academic, I'm extremely passionate about my sphere of work so I was happy to play the long game and I had a plan. I believe that we all the choices; no one has a gun against your head telling you to be in a job that's killing you or your relationship with your family. Work out a different plan and don't be a tree...
I live in Crewe and work in Birmingham, the train ride gives me time to read and think without students at the door (much as I love the dears...), and is now giving me 2 hours a day towards the study time dedicated to my PhD... once I'd reassured my supervisor that I can work effectively on a train. Once I'm focussed, nothing disturbs me :)
As one of my recent graduate sons lecturers put it "you can have 20 minutes contact time once every three months if you really need it, I don't live in the region or county let alone the city", she was holding down partial contract hours jobs in 3 or 4 very wide spread Universities from the South West to the North East whilst based in Oxford, and people wonder why academic burn-out occurs...
I totally agree with this piece. For four years I had an academic part-time job 70 miles away from home. Although it was a permanent position, it wasn't worth uprooting my family and significantly increasing my husband's commute to a full-time, extremely well-paid but equally stressful job. Sensibly, we decided to stay close to his job and I did the long commute while bearing the brunt of childcare as I was only working part-time. I had a formal flexible working arrangement (which I had to fight year on year), but the timetable issues described in the article made flexibility almost impossible in practice. Commuting by train would have eaten a third of my part-time salary so I drove into work, mostly in rush hour (!). I was lucky in that I had the opportunity to work from home when not teaching, but when this is becomes your default working pattern, it can feel very isolating and alienating, which in my case spiralled into mild depression. I now work 18 miles from home, and though I still have 1h commute door to door, it is more manageable. And, because I am on a research only position with no teaching commitments, I have total flexibility to work from home whenever I need to. The price? Trading a permanent grade 9 position for a 3-year grade 8 contract.
It all depends on the nature of the public transport and whether it is suitable for focused working. 45 minutes from Chester to Liverpool - impossible on Merseyrail. 60 minutes from Chester to Manchester - time well spent!
I'm currently teaching one day a week, with a door-to-door commute of 3 hours. It's so tough, especially as my commuting costs do eat into my earnings quite substantially, but it can be slim pickings for fresh ECAs.

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