They're all going on a summer holiday ...

Is life in academe the bed of roses most people believe it to be? Simon Midgley asks the experts
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Those days of wine and roses are with us once again. With finals out of the way, the long summer holiday beckons languorously for thousands of British academics.

While the wheels of commerce grind on and most workers struggle through the summer months on the nine-to-five treadmill, academe takes its traditional siesta in Tuscany and Greece, California and the Loire Valley. Or does it?

It may be common knowledge in the public bar of the Frog and Whistle that "those university teachers don't half get long holidays", but is it, and, moreover, has it ever been true?

Denizens of the senior common room are very sensitive to the allegation that they take inordinately extended holidays. They are quick to talk about their research commitments, their PhD supervisory responsibilities, and the long hours they put in, unseen, working from home.

Professor Peter Mortimer, director of the Institute of Education, University of London, says: "I think that the lotus days were probably before 1988. There was much less pressure." While Michael Barber, professor of Education at Keele University, says cautiously that "holidays are not the same as they might once have been".

An arts lecturer at one of London's new universities, who has worked outside the world of academe, is less circumspect. "My impression is that some people work extremely hard and some people have a real doddle. I think that what happens is that university lecturers start as students and then carry on working as lecturers and have no experience of the pressures of a lot of other workplaces.

"Because a lecturer's time is so unmonitored, there's no way of really knowing whether they are working or not. Universities function in an entirely different way to other workplaces. It is totally autonomous, how you manage your time. No one knows whether you are sick or ill. If you have been teaching a long time, you don't have to do much course preparation. There is a high level of trust about whether you are working or not.

"The problem is the one or two notorious characters," says professor Ted Wragg of Exeter University, who has already enjoyed a week's holiday in Austria and will be going to France in September (with his laptop computer). "Everybody knows people who don't give a sod, who cannot be found. But the vast majority of people are not actually like that. In fact, the vast majority of university academics now are really under quite a lot of pressure."

The new universities, many of them former polytechnics, tend to have agreements spelling out the number of weeks a year to be spent teaching and the duration of holidays, among other things. A typical example might be 38 weeks of teaching annually, some of which are for teaching-related administration; and 35 days' holiday, plus statutory bank holidays.

In the old universities, the non-academic staff will tend to have contracts specifying the number of hours worked and the amount of holiday allowed. The individual lecturer's gloriously vague contract will require him or her to teach and research, and will refer to the scale on which they will be paid, but it will not say how much holiday they are allowed.

The amount of holiday taken will vary from individual to individual, department to department, and university to university. Nowadays there are enormous pressures on academics to publish in order to keep their department research ratings up, and to win research contracts. Some universities are about to start experimenting with three long semesters (15 weeks a term) and other universities run summer schools which lecturers are required to service.

An AUT survey of academic staff in autumn last year found that, in the Easter vacation, lecturers worked an average of 51 hours a week and, in the spring term, they worked an average of 55 hours. An enormous 40 per cent of personal academic research was done in the evenings and at weekends, both during term and in the holidays. This tends to suggest that many academics work hard throughout the year.

Professor Barber, who took no holiday last summer, is attending a conference in Sydney in the first week of August and spending the next three weeks travelling in Australia with his family.

Professor Mortimer, who used to spend two months writing and studying while teaching at the University of Lancaster, will be lucky if he finds two days for writing and research this summer. Most of the time will be spent administering his department, although he is taking two-and-a-half weeks' holiday, part of which will be spent in France and the Austrian mountains.

Being an academic in Nineties Britain is not all a bed of roses, despite what they say in the public bar.