Editorial: The Taciticity of Academic Labour - Communicating what we do (and how we have too much to do)

By CruncHEd Team

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

In welcoming the first of our pieces in CruncHEd — Report of a survey on workload and WAM at Cardiff Business School written by Professor Vicki Wass — this editorial provides some thoughts around the problem of workload intensification and excessive workloads for academic HE workers, with a particular focus on the difficulties of achieving effective communication with different audiences about these issues. This latter concern underpins why the CruncHEd team considers Wass’ piece to be significant. It makes an important start in developing an evidence-base that highlights the reality of the crisis of overwork for academic staff, but also pinpoints a series of contributing factors that operate to ‘bake-in’ a long-hours culture.

In July 2017, Lord Andrew Adonis, well-known to the online academic community for his attacks on Vice-Chancellors’ pay, bravely decided to take on the academic community as a whole. Drawing upon his own ‘insights’ of academia at the University of Oxford during the 1980s, in a series of Tweets, Adonis questioned the ‘sacrosanct’ nature of academics’ ‘three-month Summer holiday’, the time they spend teaching, while also expressing broader views around the (seemingly easy and comparatively undemanding) nature of academic work. As Parr notes, what ‘riled’ academics on the Twittersphere was the suggestion that ‘today’s academics are operating in a similar world to the one that he inhabited as an Oxford scholar some decades ago. And they didn’t hold back’ (Parr 2017). While numerous academics responded by pointing to how most aspects of higher education have changed since the 1980s, others sought to articulate the nature and volume of ‘summer’ work (Donald 2017, Parr 2017). For academic ‘insiders’ of course, particularly those that have stayed the course for a decade or longer, this is all incredibly apparent. The kinds of ‘major geomorphic shifts’ in higher education, including the transition from ‘elite to mass HE’ (Becher and Trowler 2001, p. 16), mean that the nature of the academic job (even at Oxford), in terms of volume and scope of work, would have looked very different even by the turn of the Millennia.

The task, however, of producing an account that can adequately highlight to ‘outsiders’ (let alone those ‘outsiders’ who imagine that they possess some ‘insider insight’) the nature of contemporary academic work, poses a huge communication challenge. A key reason is owing to the complex and multi-faceted nature of the work that academics are engaged in, consisting of a tonne of “stuff” that is largely invisible to others (who might just imagine that you teach a few classes and then sit around for the rest of the time chatting about the meaning of life whilst drinking port). Moreover, for those genuinely trying to understand, it poses a huge cognitive challenge. Even highly engaged ‘outsiders’ viewing lists or descriptions of tasks like ‘dissertation supervision’, ‘re-sit marking’, ‘running summer schools’, ‘preparing courses’, ‘bureaucracy’, and, and, and… ‘so on’, may be left none the wiser as to what many of these tasks really mean or involve in terms of labour and effort.

While Lord Adonis laboured under huge misconceptions about the nature of academic work, he is far from an isolated case; many elements of our ‘world’ will be largely mysterious and unknown to others. And ‘others’ can be a rather large category — one that includes people highly proximate to us during our working lives. Even within the walls of the university, despite working alongside a range of populations — students, other academics engaged in slightly different work or employed on different contract types, members of professional service staff, up to the lofty heights of University Boards of Governors filled with lay-members — the University resembles not a unified world, but multiple worlds. For this reason, much of our everyday academic labouring, which for many of us is extraordinarily multi-faceted, will still be largely invisible to those who are not immersed in what we do and performing essentially the same kinds of tasks.

Workloads: Not just a communication issue

The problem, however, transcends issues of communication.Those currently engaged in strike action where issues of spiralling workloads are one of the ‘Four Fights’ have a very strong shared sense of what the ‘workload’ problem consists of in practice and how this is a pan-sectoral issue. In this respect, the issue within universities, or in negotiations with UCEA, is rather different — and far more frustrating, in large measure because there is an expectation that those leading our organisations, ought to have a strong grasp of what the ‘workload’ problem is. This is not just because they are our employers — the ones tasked with running the university show — but also because of their individual profiles and work experience. In respect of the academic workload, it is important to note that most of those leading universities, acting as Vice-Chancellors, Deputy Vice-Chancellors, Pro-Vice Chancellors and Deans (Associate Deans, and so on), are not strangers to academic work. The vast majority of those taking up these roles were (and often continue to identify as) academics (Shepherd 2016). While some of them might hold out-of-date conceptions of academia following decades of leading rather than academic-ing on the frontline, many of them — particularly the latest recruits to the Advance HE club — should have a very good idea of the concerns around academic workload. Similarly so, there are many amongst the top ranks who should have some insight into the nature of work, and its intensification, as it is experienced by non-academic staff. So, quite reasonably, the idea that at least some senior university executives might possess some understanding, or be able to dredge up some relevant memories so as to connect with staff members’ concerns about how the job has (deleteriously) transformed, has led many of us to make personal appeals to those leading universities to take effective steps.

But to no avail. Rather it would appear that University leaders are rather more invested in not confronting these issues in any meaningful way. Quite why those appeals to university leaders fail, is something that will occupy us in the near future — but the essence of it is that our employers have not only chosen to look the other way, but more perniciously, are often engaged in institutional gaslighting by insisting that workloads are manageable, staffing levels are adequate, and that casualisation is not a problem.

Fighting for Decent Working Conditions and Manageable Workloads

In the face of denial on the part of those at the top of universities, we are left with a thorny, complex challenge in terms of how we best go about fighting for working conditions that enable workers to be productive, fulfilled and safe in the workplace. It seems completely bizarre to write these words — these aren’t just incredibly modest asks — they are ones which are absolutely crucial for the health of any business and any half-competent leader of an organisation would not — should not — look away in the face of the evidence already there (see Leeke 2020). Still, we are where we are.

Developing an evidence base around workload

While we will need to work out our full strategy, a clear starting point is to develop a strong evidence base around the excessive demands upon HE staff. This starts with our ability to highlight the fundamental nature, and tenets of, academic work, and how employers’ excessive expectations in terms of output and performance necessitate overwork. This point appears to be lost (or is deliberately confounded) by some university leaders who portray staff in a very particular way — in relation to academics, as a population that is particularly inclined towards ‘perfectionism’ or ‘obsessiveness’. Excessive workload — and presumably the deleterious impacts that follow — on this characterisation, are voluntary and invited. There is a need to counter these pernicious tropes with robust evidence and of the specific fallouts for staff that result.

While this editorial is focused on academic staff in particular, all these concerns have equal application to all populations of HE staff. Evidencing the intensification of work for some populations — such as professional service staff — is somewhat more challenging, but critically necessary. So too do we need to highlight the deleterious impacts of this overwork culture on people’s physical and mental health (e.g. see Morrish 2019), to the student learning experience, for the production of knowledge, and fundamentally, for the future vitality and longevity of the Higher Education sector. These all constitute key aspects of the case that we need to make to press for change.

But importantly, we also need to have our eyes on a range of potential solutions. And this is perhaps our most fundamental challenge. The erosion of working conditions in HE where the expectation of ‘more for less’ is surely no accident — but rather stands as an inherent and critical component of a marketised (and debt-ridden) university system that is economically dependent upon eternal growth. The exploitation of human labour is a critical part of that market logic (Hall and Bowles 2016). Many universities have strategized themselves into a corner (arguably through financial mismanagement and lack of business acumen/foresight) at this stage — neck-high in debt and a strategy dependent upon a never ending and growing intake of (international) students and research grant income — universities are incredibly susceptible to the slightest of economic or social shocks. Unsurprising it should be that our bosses are so keen to look the other way when we are begging them to put an end to excessive workloads and casualisation. What we are asking for requires universities to commit to adequate levels of staffing, and to accept higher staff costs — but the strategic ‘direction of travel’ is moving in the opposite direction.

In the absence of a complete system-change it is hard to see what alternatives will serve to address the continued erosion of working conditions. For example, some employers — confronted with a workload crisis and outcries by staff have been prepared to introduce, or to revisit their existing Workload Allocation Models (there is scope for doing this — but it will require universities to think very differently; see this excellent thread about good workload modelling and planning). A cautionary note comes with Wass’ piece that this editorial seeks to introduce — as is evident from Wass’ study, the presence of a Workload Allocation Model (WAM), which some had argued for and implemented (sometimes in conjunction with trade unions) in order to promote ‘equity, transparency, reasonableness and safety’ in relation to workloads (Paewai, Meyer and Houston 2007), have not just failed to stem the rising tide of work expectations, but arguably initiatives such as WAM have concealed and exacerbated the workload crisis. In similar force, where there is an understandable need for staff across the sector to have ‘normal working hours’ stipulated within employment contracts, the Cardiff case study should also serve to temper optimism on this front. For full-time securely employed academic staff at Cardiff, their contracts have long stipulated that ‘normal hours of work’ are 35 hours per week — though as Wass’ study highlights, what is normal is far, far in excess of that. So when we contemplate ‘solutions’, we need to keep a steady eye on the extent to which those leading universities are invested in looking away or buying into non-solution solutions that either maintain the status quo, or, more likely, that promise increases in productivity per staff member. As the postscript makes clear, nearly two years down the line at Cardiff University, little has changed — all the more remarkable in light of this particular University hitting the news in 2018 by virtue of workload concerns being strongly implicated in the tragic death of an academic in the School of Business (and leading to a staff outcry that meaningful steps needed to be taken by the university). So great caution is needed before buying into systems which might amount to rearranging the chairs on the Titanic —arguably, systems like WAM constitute a short-term distraction from the bigger picture — and indeed, constitute a convenient short-term (non-)solution for those heavily invested in pretending that the iceberg isn’t there.

Whether we seek to rethink existing dimensions of the current system, or advocate an entire system-change, we will need robust and detailed evidence in order to press for change. The full range of evidence that will be needed, and the audiences that might be persuaded by it and positioned so as to be able to effect change — are further questions that we will need to tackle in due course.

Introducing Vicki Wass’ Piece for CruncHEd

On the issue of the ‘academic’ workload, and speaking directly to the ‘tacit’ nature of the academic workload in Higher Education, we are delighted to welcome a contribution from Vicki Wass (until recently, she was a Professor at Cardiff University). In her CruncHEd article, ‘Report of a survey on workload and WAM at Cardiff Business School’, Vicki shares her research findings from a study on workload at the Cardiff University School of Business undertaken in late 2018. While specific to that school, the methods informing her investigation of workloads and the realities of the ‘Workload Allocation Model’ will certainly be useful to academics elsewhere who are seeking to undertake similar analytical work. In addition, many of the findings will strongly resonate with academics across the sector. The kinds of concerns the survey participants highlight, ranging from the lack of troughs now experienced in the academic calendar, the panoply of academic work missed from workload accounting, the hours that staff report having to work that extends far beyond their contracted hours, to the impacts upon people’s ability to perform their roles effectively and broader observations still — are sector-wide.

For many of us, frustrated by senior university executives failure to engage with our concerns around workload, this piece reinforces what we all know — but can find difficult to explicate to those not involved in this work. In turn, while senior university executives are heavily invested in looking the other way, it is nevertheless important to present them with ‘uncomfortable knowledge’ (Rayner 2012) of this kind as often as possible, and as publicly as necessary. For this reason, Professor Wass’ piece is significant in articulating the kinds of issues that contribute to a culture of overwork in academia, the kinds of tasks and processes at play that push academics far beyond their contracted hours, and how the changed environment, which has become noticeably more bureaucratic, has impacted hard on academic workloads.

We hope that you’ll enjoy reading Vicki’s report, and that you’ll return to CruncHEd in the future. If you have an idea for a piece that you’d like to write, we’d love to hear from you. Please get in contact with us at: Bumpylandingproject@gmail.com.


CruncHEd is a platform run by the Bumpy Landing Project…


CruncHEd is a platform run by the Bumpy Landing Project dedicated to analysis of the HE sector in the UK. We produce occasional papers which present our key findings from analysis of employers’ representations of staffing/labour in HEIs/the HE sector.

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CruncHEd is a platform run by the Bumpy Landing Project dedicated to analysis of the HE sector in the UK. We produce occasional papers which present our key findings from analysis of employers’ representations of staffing/labour in HEIs/the HE sector.

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