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.