In the interests of transparency…

A couple of weeks back there was a damning piece in The Guardian on the ever-expanding culture of casual contracts in academia. The University of Nottingham unfortunately featured heavily. Here’s a key quote from the article. (Greg is not the real name of the academic in question).

Over time, [Greg] took on more work: one day of teaching at Nottingham and another at a rival university. These were casual contracts: short-term, and paying him only by the hour. As such, they offered more experience than income. So he also did some gardening and, where possible, wrote for a local newspaper.

He was pulling five jobs, working up to 70 hours a week. And he was still only making £22,000 to £23,000 a year before tax – below the national average. 

According to The Guardian article (which cites, and I quote, “official figures”), 45% of all staff at the University of Nottingham involved in teaching, or teaching and research, count as casual labour. This is, The Guardian claims, comparable to the national situation where somewhat over half of all academics are on casual contracts. The University of Nottingham has challenged the statistics in The Guardian article. And the UoN branch of the University and College Union (UCU) has in turn challenged the response from UoN management.

I’ve written previously about the intense competition that exists for lecturing positions. (As I tell the PhD and postdoctoral researchers in the group here, I know that what I had in terms of academic “outputs” to secure a lectureship at Nottingham back in 1997 wouldn’t even get me within sniffing distance of a short-list today). This competitive pressure underpins the growing casualisation of staff in the ways described by The Guardian. As a colleague here at Nottingham put it (in one of many letters responding to that article),

How ironic that you should publish Nicholas Maxwell’s plea (Letters, 17 November) for universities to engage in intelligent public education on the same day that you reveal sector-wide exploitation of academic employees. Our generously remunerated vice-chancellors have already high-tailed it in the opposite direction, content to undermine intellectual standards while easing many young adults towards unrecoverable debt.

Peter Shaw
Professor of biochemistry, University of Nottingham

I meant to write a post about that Guardian exposé long before now but I’ve been up to my ears with teaching, admin, reviewing (and, very occasionally, research) commitments so the blog has had to to take a back seat. In any case, many others, particularly in that lengthy series of letters, have said just about everything I wanted to say. What I instead want to focus on here is the flip-side of the casualisation coin: the extent to which the working patterns of permanent academic staff, and, equally importantly, their non-academic colleagues, are under-estimated, under-reported, and too often under-valued.

Last week was the first “session” for what’s known as the Transparent Approach to Costing (TRAC), an annual survey of just how academics spend their time. Various schools are selected each year and their staff asked to complete a record of the number of hours spent on different activities: teaching, research, “other income generating activities”, “support general”, and “sickness”.  This involves filling out a timesheet of activities split into those categories.

So what’s wrong with that, you might ask? Feeding back an accurate record of academic work patterns to the funding bodies must surely be a useful exercise to help inform and assess spending commitments. Isn’t that a laudably transparent approach? The problem is that it’s not the raw data on the hours spent on these activities that are returned. Instead, the percentage of time on research vs teaching vs admin is returned by the university to HEFCE. The TRAC methodology, along with the research councils’ grant application processes, assumes a 37.5 hour working week (and a 44 week working year). That strikes me as an approach that’s not entirely lacking in opacity.

In the interests of full transparency, therefore, I thought I’d keep a diary of just how I spent my time during Week 1 of the TRAC 2016-2017 survey. Here we go…

Monday November 21 2016

05:30 – 06:15 Finish off reviewing paper that has been on my “To Do” list for three weeks. Second reminder from the editor to submit the review arrived yesterday.

06:30 – 07:15 Having logged in to e-mail to find link to submit review of paper, check e-mails. Check over proofs of recent paper to be published in Nanotechnology. Read proofs of new undergraduate prospectus and note suggestions for changes.

08:00 Office. Check e-mail. Send quick response to colleague re. seminar (see below) and answer questions from students re. coursework for Year 4 module.

08:30 Meet up with invited speaker for the F34PPP module at the campus hotel.

09:00 Seminar by invited speaker for F34PPP module.

10:15 Coffee with invited speaker. Discuss organisation of workshop planned for next year.

11:00 More e-mails. Check UCAS statistics for undergraduate applications. Meet (very) briefly with PhD student to discuss research progress.

12:00 Lunch with visiting seminar speaker.

13:00 Undergraduate admissions meeting. (I’m UG admissions tutor).

14:00 Walk visiting seminar speaker back to hotel. Respond to e-mails when I get back to office.

15:00 School Operations Group meeting.

16:00 Meeting with PhD student and postdoctoral researcher. Visit lab. to see what’s happening.

16:30 Meeting with PhD student.

17:00 Notice that speaker’s camera tripod has been left in my office. Bring tripod back to hotel. (Not quite certain as to which TRAC category is most appropriate here…).

19:00 Another hour of e-mails before getting my son ready for bed.

Tuesday November 22 2016

05:00 – 06:00 Write 500 words of popular science book I’ve been working on over the last year. Deadline: January 2017 (gulp). Again, not quite certain as to which TRAC category this falls under (if any). Is it impact or not?

06:00 – 07:00 E-mails. Again. Handle questions related to our 1st year undergraduate scholarships and other admissions-related enquiries. Send e-mail to 1st year lab organiser to apologise that my report marking is most likely going to be late.

08:30 — 11:30 Travel to Bury (beside Manchester) for a visit to Holy Cross School to talk about career opportunities in physics, and how to apply for physics degrees. Spent majority of time on trains marking 1st year lab reports and answering e-mails. (Also take time to check comments on a YouTube video I uploaded recently. Never a good idea…)

11:30 – 14:30 Visit to Holy Cross School. Lunch with Head of Physics.

14:30 – 18:00 Trains back to Nottingham. More 1st year lab report marking. Write “Comma splice. You need a full stop here” more times than I’ll ever care to remember. More e-mails. Lots of correspondence re. tomorrow’s UCAS visit day. E-mail informing me that new sample holder has fallen in the bottom of the ultrahigh vacuum chamber. Sigh.

Wednesday November 23 2016

05:00 – 06:00 A few hundred more words for the pop. sci. book. Best part of the working day. (Still don’t know whether this is TRAC-able, however).

06:00 – 07:00 Draft letter related to admissions.

09:15 – 10:45 Flurry of e-mails and informal meetings related to first UCAS visit day of the season. Mark one more lab report in “gaps”.

11:15 – 12:00 Visit lab to chat with PhD and postdoc researchers. More e-mails.

12:00 – 15:45 UCAS visit day (includes lunch with parents of applicants)

16:00 Brief meeting with PhD student.

16:15 E-mails: budget management on an EU grant and a reference for an alumnus of the group.

17:00 – 17:40 Skype conversation with mature student thinking of applying for physics degree course.

21:00 – 22:00 Spend a little time working on a manuscript that has been in “gestation” for far too long.

Thursday November 24 2016

06:00 – 07:30 Too far behind on lab marking (deadline today). Forgo spending time writing book to mark lab reports.

09:00 – 12:00 Normally this should be my 1st year lab demonstrating session. Due to admissions activity this week (and previous weeks), this session is being covered by a colleague. Spent time marking 1st year lab reports instead (and, of course, the mandatory e-mailing activity in “parallel”).

12:00 – 13:30  Lunch with colleagues (and an alumnus of the group who is visiting UoN today).

13:30 – 14:00 E-mails.

14:00 Meeting with 3rd year project students.

14:30 Meeting with tutee interested in possibility of summer internship in nanoscience group. Brief tour of labs.

15:00 – 18:00 Lab report marking.

21:00 Not feeling too well…

Friday November 25 2016

05:00 E-mail colleagues and tutees to say that I am not going to be in today due to illness — not been a good night. Tutorial scheduled for 15:00 today cancelled.

14:00 Still feeling queasy but rather better than twelve hours earlier. Start marking again.

19:00 Five hours’ marking completed (with periodic tea breaks).  

Saturday November 26 2016

06:30 – 10:00 Lab report marking.

15:00 -17:30 Lab report marking.

19:00 – 20:30 Lab report marking. (Almost infinitely preferable to Strictly…, which rest of family is watching).

Sunday November 27 2016

06:00 – 7:30 Lab report marking.

08:45 – 09:45 Lab report marking during my daughter’s ice skating lesson.

18:00 – 19:0021:30 – 23:30 Lab report marking


That’s 57 hrs, give or take the odd tea break. Note the lack of any type of hands-on research save for one hour spent on a paper. I am not griping in any way that the total number of hours is rather larger than the nominal HEFCE/RCUK 37.5 hr working week. Moreover, my hours are entirely in line with those of many of my colleagues (and, indeed, are a distinct improvement on the 80 hr weeks many early career academics work. When they start their lectureship they need to set up their research group, deal with a new world of administration, and often teach in parallel. (Many departments, however, set a minimal or reduced amount of teaching for the first few years of a lectureship.)

I enjoy my job. (Well, OK, let’s be honest, I can’t put hand on heart and say I always enjoy marking lab reports. But even marking has its upsides. I think…). And at least some aspects of the job remain effectively a hobby. The hours totted up above aren’t a problem; there are many people who work much longer hours in much more stressful jobs. (I’m not a junior medical doctor, for example). The thing that grinds my gears, however, is that a process which goes by the name of the Transparent Approach to Costing is anything but transparent.

Universities rely a great deal on the good will of staff (at all levels), lecturers’ love of their subject, and the willingness to do the best we can for our students. Yet as higher education becomes ever more corporate, university management reduces academics and teachers, the lifeblood of the university, to simplistic metrics and numbers on spreadsheets. They no longer connect with those working at the chalk-face and are too often cosseted away from the rank-and-file of academia. This not only demoralises staff but does a disservice to the students who pay a great deal of money to be taught by academics who would like to feel rather more valued by their institution.

Author: Philip Moriarty

Physicist. Rush fan. Father of three. (Not Rush fans. Yet.) Rants not restricted to the key of E minor...

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