Education: The Recruitment Scandal: Comment

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The Independent Online
IF YOU really want to get up an academic's nose, try asking questions about working hours. Suggest - subtly of course - that academics appear to have long vacations and short teaching days; unlike teachers, they do not have piles of exercise books to mark and assemblies to attend. If you want the wrath of the gods of academe to fall on your head, suggest it might be timely to undertake a survey of the actual working hours of academics.

Yet such a survey is about to happen. I've just read the first report by the Joint Costing and Pricing Steering Group, that claims to bring a "holistic focus" to costing all higher education activities. It is yet another body that is steadily homing in on the way universities manage their affairs: one major area still awaiting exploration is time management.

Earlier this year the Bett Report raised questions on academic salaries: I can see bureaucrats asking whether academics give value for money at all, even for the peanuts they now get. Under the bureauspeak is a good old time and motion study.

I'm not totally without sympathy for the idea, in spite of the howls of outrage it'll provoke. I know too many professors who leave the university on the last day of the summer term, returning only on the first day of the next, claiming to have been engaged on vital research at their holiday homes in southern France.

I've stood with chemists in their well-lit labs during Christmas week and gazed out at the totally darkened buildings of other faculties. I've passed faculties shut for eight weeks, as lonely PhD students turn from their supervisors' locked doors. I've heard the hardship stories of those whose living arrangements only let them come into university two days a week in term-time.

There can't be a university that doesn't have over-used lecture rooms, 10am to 4pm, Tuesdays to Thursdays, that are empty on Mondays and Fridays as academics time "research days" to fit in with an extended weekend. It isn't easy to feel sympathy for people who complain that six hours a week is an excessive teaching load, or who ask me to support a bid for yet another term's sabbatical from someone who's only managed to write four articles in 12 years.

But most academics work very hard, despite apparent, damning evidence to the contrary. For research can't be properly measured in hours. Thinking is a process. You can't turn out mathematical formul like hamburgers, or produce a book on ancient philosophy in the time it takes Barbara Cartland to write a novel.

Some books take years of germination, maturation and revision. I work harder when washing up or walking the dog if I am in the middle of writing something, than I would if glued to a computer: it is then that I can let my thinking set in place and start to take coherent shape.

If this research is to filter into teaching students, there also needs to be a decanting, as it were. And even where teaching is not research- driven, classes have to be well prepared, properly documented and geared to the level of the students. Besides the research and teaching, these days there is a steady flow of admin work, student mentoring, essay and exam marking. The lecturer using yellowing lecture notes year after year is no longer a reality, if he or she ever was.

But nobody, least of all the paymasters, believe academics when they say they work hard - because academics themselves have sent out such mixed messages. They've whinged endlessly about how they all work 80- 90 hours a week all through the year, but the under-use of teaching spaces shows that this can't possibly be true. They resist attempts to scrutinise what they actually do, letting an entire quality assessment industry of dubious worth spring up around them, armed to the teeth and hell-bent on quantifying it all. Hardly surprising if the paymasters are demanding clear details of these excessive work loads.

My worry is what the time and motion study will do to collegiality: this old-fashioned yet fundamental concept is how UK higher education attained its international excellence. When we all know just how many (or how few) hours we all work, the system will disintegrate. Those who work way over the odds will cease doing so; and those who have cut corners will feel vindicated, and hence do even less.

Perhaps we should move to the system of many countries with statutory teaching hours and unquantified research time. Then we could get on with our job and not waste time explaining to people who don't understand that thinking isn't easily translated into numbers.

The writer is Pro-vice-chancellor of Warwick University

Ted Wragg, who wrote last week's comment article, is joint author of `Failing Teachers', published this week by EC Wragg, GS Haynes, CM Wragg and RP Chamberlin. (Routledge, pounds 15.99 paperback, pounds 50 hardback)

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