The recent strike action over pension, when some university staff “worked to contract”, highlights the complex issues surrounding academic roles and what does and does not form part of the contract.
Academic contracts are task-based, not hours-based. They typically have notional hours, or have no specific hours of work and state that staff are expected to work hours deemed necessary or reasonable for their duties. Overtime payments are not applicable.
Contracts of employment imply that staff will agree their duties and workloads with their line managers and discussions about work pattern are likely to occur in annual personal development reviews, details of which vary widely across the sector.
In surveys conducted by the University and College Union, academic staff on average work about 50 hours per week, with a significant proportion working more than 55 hours a week.
Universities have a duty of care to staff and are expected to take reasonable steps to ensure that staff receive breaks and are not working excessive hours. Increasingly, universities promote work-life balance and provide well-being support and resilience training. However, these are of limited value if workload is set at an unrealistic level. Beyond a negative impact on staff welfare, poorly managed workload can disproportionately disadvantage staff who have families or caring responsibilities.
Despite the introduction of tuition fees, lower government funding for teaching has prompted universities to scrutinise the cost-effectiveness of many academic activities. This, together with expansion of student numbers, may lead to increases in workload. For example, academic staff may be allocated more curriculum development and assessment responsibilities and more contact hours with students for repeated teaching sessions and pastoral care.
For staff with education and research responsibilities, a heavier teaching load can limit time spent on research, reducing research output and ability to generate research income. Over the past few years, academic staff have reported a shift towards more administrative and management work which may not be related to their teaching or research activities. The need to balance a diverse range of activities is not new, but the pressures on doing more and doing more well may have intensified. With increasing workload, staff may feel unable to engage with personal and professional training, which is also essential for the university’s growth.
An important consideration is the intertwined relationship between workload and performance. More ambitious performance targets can increase workload. However, if staff are overworked, their productivity and quality of work may decrease.
The Government assesses university performance through the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) and the Research Excellence Framework (REF). TEF and REF rankings also boost universities’ reputations. Metrics related to these frameworks, including student satisfaction and REF-returnable publications, have been used by some universities to evaluate staff performance and as a basis for workload (re)allocation. However, such performance expectations do not necessarily address quality or actual workload. Research-intensive universities may additionally use grant income as a measure of success which can be challenging in the current funding environment.
The Transparent Approach to Costing, which is an activity-based costing system, requires universities to provide institutional data on academic time spent on teaching, research and other support activities. Some universities have developed electronic diaries that feed into their workload model to help review individual workload allocation and capacity issues.
University policies on workload allocation generally reflect the values they place on the different core activities. They also indicate expectations of staff which may not be clearly laid out in employment contracts. An effective model has appropriate time allocated to simple and complex tasks over the full range of staff activities and has ideally been developed through staff consultation. It needs to be flexible and transparent to allow for re-distribution of duties among staff and balancing of the different areas of activity. Implementation, however, relies on local practices and line managers. Duties such as public engagement and committee membership are often excluded from workload models but are considered beneficial to professional and career development.
Excessive workload can lead to apparent under-performance. As a result, performance review needs to be managed fairly and consistently. Workload distribution is a dynamic endeavour due to the changing nature of higher education. However, issues may arise when major changes are made to workload allocation and related performance indices, especially during university reorganisations. It is particularly problematic if the new criteria are then used to evaluate staff contribution and to identify staff for redundancies.
Workload issues remain a cause for concern. Increases in teaching load are frequently highlighted but this is inherently linked to workload on research and other important supporting activities. Work-life balance and job satisfaction motivate staff and reduce staff turnover. To enable sustainable development, universities would benefit from a proactive approach to managing workload and terms of employment and being responsive to the individual and collective needs of staff.