This is a touch on the navel-gazing side but, at the same time, since everyone seems to agree that having high-quality universities is an important element in future economic growth, it seems worthwhile explaining how academics actually work.
The Irish Times reports today that Ned Costello, chief executive of the Irish Universities Association.
said academic staff spent 40 per cent of their time on research, 40 per cent on teaching and 20 per cent on contribution work, but did not have minimum working hours.
Labour TD Roisin Shorthall reckoned that
based on Mr Costello’s formula, staff would work a 15-hour week. She said the matter was of considerable concern to parents and was dispiriting for students who expected to be challenged at university, but were finding themselves with only six or eight hours of lectures a week.
An appropriate response to this claim might be to point out that over the year ending in September 2010, the Dail was in session for 863 hours, meaning that in the extremely unlikely event that Ms. Shorthall was present for every session, one could claim that she worked a maximum of 16.6 (=863/52) hours per week. And, given the circumstances we’re in, one might point out that this lack of work by our politicians was dispiriting for the citizens of this country.
But that would be silly, right? Ms. Shorthall needs to do many other things to fulfil her role as a public representative than simply being present at Dail sessions.
In addition to teaching and teaching preparation (and the latter takes far more time than the former if you want to do it well) let me explain some of the things that academics need to do if they are to have careers that are in any way successful:
1. Research: The research requirements for academics should be interpreted broadly. Certainly, the best academic departments contain people who do cutting-edge research published in leading peer-reviewed journals. This requires huge investments of time in preparing the research, as well as presenting it and dealing with all the difficulties involved in the peer reviewed publication process. However, those who rubbish academics usually also don’t see the point in academic research either. But, at a minimum, you would hope that the people who teach our students follow current events in their areas of specialisation and attend conferences and read new academic papers to keep up with developments in their field. All of this takes time.
2. Professional Responsibilities: I could decide if I wanted to that I wasn’t going to supervise PhD students, or edit journals, or referee journal articles, or comment on papers or research proposals by colleagues. However, the profession simply wouldn’t work if everyone decided to be like that and I would be viewed as a bad colleague, which might be bad for my career progress.
3. Administration: Universities don’t run themselves. Someone has to decide what should be taught, and when, and where, and by whom. Mostly, the people who do this stuff do it voluntarily as part of their obligation to the university that they work for. This story about “unauthorised payments” refers to UCD’s attempts to incentive people for taking on demanding administrative roles with the university. The government doesn’t want such payments to be made. Fair enough but there are consequences: I might make a good Head of Department or Dean of Faculty or whatever, and spend a number of years improving the quality of degrees that we offer. But it’s demanding and highly administrative work, so why would I drop my research and teaching that I enjoy for a position that wouldn’t pay me anything extra. Relying on people’s sense of obligation only gets you so far.
4. Engagement with Non-Academic World: If academics only published papers and taught students, Ms. Shorthall would undoubtedly condemn us for being ivory tower types with no engagement with the real world. Well, some of us are and that’s fine as long as they make useful contributions along other dimensions. However, many academics do take the time to communicate their research findings and (hopefully) informed opinions to the public and also to engage in the public policy process and with other people outside the academic sphere. This blog is an obvious example but there are many others.
I don’t want to defend all academics as saints. As with all professions, there are under-performers who don’t contribute as much as we would like in terms of teaching or any of the other four dimensions mentioned above. But the constant focus on hours in the classroom as a measure of the output of the educational sector is ill-informed. And to the extent that it has some influence, the focus on classroom hours is dangerous for the future of our universities and, by implication, our economy.