Right of Reply: Margaret Spufford

Click to follow
The professor of social and local history at the Roehampton Institute, in London, responds to the suggestion in a recent leader that academics are too devoted to their long summer vacations

IT IS a popular misconception that the long vacation is holiday time for academics, but it is disappointing to find the leader columns of The Independent arguing that academics are reluctant to undertake more administration to reform college entrance procedures. We need our vacations to promote research, as well as teach.

Does the public not realise that the advances in knowledge that make a difference to their lives every day derive from research in universities? The earliest computers were evolved by lecturers: the discovery of the structure of DNA and the unravelling of the human genome are both examples of cross-fertilisation between universities and commercial laboratories.

Many lecturers and professors used to put aside a day or two each week for research. However, with the increasing numbers of students - without a parallel increase in lecturers and professors - this is now rarely possible.

The vacations are therefore intensely busy. For scientists, this is most frequently a time spent in laboratories. This is also the time for fieldwork, whether it is criminologists spending time in prisons, architects actually designing buildings or geologists in earthquake zones. For historians, it is the time to work in archives. At this time of year the Public Record Office is at bursting point. An Association of University Teachers survey has shown the hours worked by academics are akin to those of junior doctors.

Undergraduate teaching in general does stop during the long vacation - but even here there are exceptions. Geographers take their students on field trips, for example. And post-graduate teaching never stops. Doctoral students need supervision all year round, as do post-doctoral members of a research team.

The vacation is also the time for conferences. The organisation of such colloquia is no light task. People tell us it has been a wonderful summer. We have failed to notice, not because we were hibernating in academic torpor, but desperately working at our desks.