The academic ‘further achievers’ who live to work

University leaders must lead the debate on realistic workloads, says Doris Ruth Eikhof

November 13, 2014

Source: Eduardo Fuentes

With the new academic year in full swing, we are all well aware that long working hours in academia are an occupational hazard. But they are neither inevitable nor indicators of prolific scholarship.

This summer, an essay in these pages called on individual academics to spend less time at work and devote more time to non-work activity (“Clocking off”, 7 August). Since doing so increases rather than decreases productivity, we needn’t fear negative consequences for our careers, the article by Patience Schell, professor of Hispanic studies at the University of Aberdeen, suggested.

Unfortunately, things aren’t quite that easy. The real problem is that no matter how productive the academic, there is always an incentive to do more work. And not, as Schell suggests, because we love our work or live in a long-hours culture, but because we don’t know when to stop. And because nobody tells us when to stop.

Compared with much of the non-academic world, expectations of academics are remarkably ill-defined. Most departments and faculties have a workload model that at least details the teaching and administration tasks staff are expected to undertake. Similarly, the research excellence framework provides a reasonable yardstick by which to measure publication expectations. Of course, workload models and REF regulations are always a bone of contention and far from perfect. But at least they offer some guidance as to when one might consider one’s job done.

Much more difficult are those areas that, hand on heart, make academic careers. Conference participation; external examining; cross-institutional research collaboration; evaluating for funding bodies; board membership of academic organisations; participation in committee meetings and appointment panels: all of these are crucial for advancement into positions of influence. But they are also time- and travel-intensive, and often require working unsocial hours.

The problem with this amorphous area of academic activity is twofold.

First, it is nigh on impossible to say how much is enough – to fulfil one’s contract, to get promotion or to stand out in the labour market. Second, universities as employers have very little power and, at first glance, no incentive to rein in their staff’s sector engagement. From their perspective, it is a case of the more the better since it gives the institution more visibility and influence in the sector and beyond.

Inevitably, there will always be those who work faster or more efficiently than others: who can fit more into the day or who are simply adept at putting their names to projects and papers that they have not contributed to. But they are not über-achievers because that would imply the existence of a clear sense of what exceeds and falls short of a recognised standard. Rather, they are “further achievers”, who constantly push perceptions of what is possible or normal, and thus raise expectations of what an academic should be delivering. The sky is the limit for making your academic CV look good. The sky – or nursery hours, school holidays, physical health or mental well-being. Or simply the conviction that life should be about more than the academy.

Industry-wide standards for recruitment and promotion might be seen to offer a solution, but that would still leave an incentive for employers to hire those who exceed those standards by the largest margin. The uneasy truth is that there is no easy way to prevent recruitment and promotion decisions that reflect and exacerbate the current problem. It will be down to individual leaders – heads of departments, deans, vice-chancellors – to halt the rat race of the further achievers. We need coalitions of the sane to lead discussions about what can reasonably be expected of academics, to recruit and promote accordingly and to mentor younger academics into a way of thinking that says: “Enough is enough. If you want to do extra, we won’t reward you for it.”

You might assume that institutions run by coalitions of the sane would automatically fall behind those run by further achievers. But think again. Universities vitally depend on academics’ ability to productively use their intellect, curiosity and creativity. In business-speak, ensuring a sane working environment therefore safeguards their supply of academic human resources.

A dairy farmer might streamline his delivery routes or negotiate discounts on milk bottles. He won’t run the health of his cows into the ground by demanding that they produce ever greater yields. But that, in essence, is what universities are currently doing to their academics. Fingers crossed that voices like Schell’s will wake them up to how counterproductive that is – preferably before the cows come home.

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