What is academic work and how should it be counted?

In managerial feudalism, ‘most of the important players are lords and vassals at the same time.’ (David Graeber, Bullshit Jobs, 181)

“While Graeber sees the increased bullshitization of the university as an outgrowth of managerial feudalism — basically as downstream effects of ostentatious displays of status and self-justification from those with power — there is, I think, a contribution to the problem that is less easily vilified, and which is in fact held up as laudable in other contexts: the drive for accountability.” (Justin Weinberg, Daily Nous, May 8, 2018)

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It seems a simple truism to say, but the essential nature of academic work hasn’t changed in a very, very long time (we teach, we research, and we organise/administer that teaching and that research), but the ways in which it is counted, valued, reported on, measured, remunerated, and apportioned to workers in the sector called ‘higher education’ have changed enormously, and pretty clearly not for the better in most respects.

I spent some time recently producing a report about workload modelling and the apportionment of time at my university. I did this at the behest of my union branch, which has asked me to give up a portion of my time to help them try to negotiate a better workload model for staff at the institution, work I am happy to volunteer my time to complete and work I want to do with UCU nationally to try to come to grips with what I increasingly think of as the ‘crisis of academic work’ gripping our sector and punishing the most precarious, early career, and marginalised members of our profession (in addition to making my working life pretty damn busy, I have to say).

And now, when I see ‘workload models’, all I can actually think of is ‘Stonks’ going up. Because ‘going up’ is all academic workloads ever seem to do.

That report took me about a week, off and on, to produce, and the whole time I was thinking about these two questions: ‘what can be quantified in academic work?’ And, ‘are those quantifications a meaningful representation of the lived experiences of academic staff?’ I was also reflecting on how even trade unions in my sector rely on goodwill labour for their operation (like basically everything else in HE) but that is a topic for another time.

I think the obvious answers to anyone who has worked as a teacher and/or researcher in higher education are: a. it appears almost everything can be quantified, and b. it appears almost none of these quantifications are a meaningful representation of reality.

I also think the obvious answers to anyone who has worked as an administrator of any kind in higher education are: a. once again, almost everything, and b. maybe these representations aren’t meaningful, but we need them because otherwise, how will we know what you all are doing and whether you are doing enough of it?!

It is important to recognise some basic validity in that second administrative answer, but that answer also reveals, I think, the heart of the managerial impulse in higher education: the push to know and see (and count, and value) the work of academics in a way that the nature of the work itself often resists.

Most of the quantification of academic labour is Bullshit. But in my experience, some of this bullshit is much more harmful to the working lives of myself and my colleagues, and that harmful bullshit, it seems to me, is most centred around who does the teaching, and who does not, and what accounting tricks can be played to make it look as if academic employees teaching less (or not at all) are still regularly ‘doing as much work’ as those who teach reams of students. I am sure people whose jobs presently exempt them from teaching so they can undertake massive and I have no doubt very demanding research projects will bristle at this, but stick with me: I think you will recognise what I mean in what follows and it is not my intention to under-estimate the sheer amount of toil that goes into academic research; an area of work that seems to me almost unquantifiable but unquestionably demanding.

So let’s make this real:

· Where I work, the model we use allocates approximately 20 minutes of time to the task of reading, marking, and making comments on a 2,000-word assignment, which means I would need to read a little under 150 words a minute in order to take in the paper in 15 minutes, I would need to spend no time at all reflecting on what to say to the student about how to improve, and I would need to provide copypasta commentary as their feedback.

· Similarly, approximately 20 minutes of time is allocated for ‘preparation’ per hour I spend in an actual classroom with actual students. Let’s not get in to how comical that amount of prep time is.

· Some multipliers exist which acknowledge that teaching more students is harder than teaching fewer, so above thresholds of 25, 50, and 75 students in a classroom I would receive additional ‘tranches’ of time in my workload.

· The administrative work of running courses is acknowledged with a flat 10-hour tariff.

· And my university can contractually oblige me to teach up to ‘550 contact hours’ per academic year, should it wish to do so. If I did this amount of teaching, I would be in classrooms more hours on average per teaching week than a secondary school teacher in a UK classroom.

Don’t try to do the math, but I can tell you from years of direct experience that this workload system desperately and deliberately undercounts the sheer amount of time it takes to teach students, doubly or triply so once you include all of the work it takes to teach students online (which, perhaps counterintuitively, does nothing to reduce the amount of work involved).

Now, try to act surprised when I tell you that non-teaching tasks in the university come with flat ‘bundles’ of hours in allotments like 50, 100, 150, and in %FTE buyouts like 0.2 (so, 20% of a staff members time is spent doing X). In order to get to 1600 hours worked, a staff member needs say 8 or 10 of these roles or tasks, plus some larger leadership responsibilities. In order for me to reach my ceiling of 550 contact hours (so, a bit over one third of my hours worked in a year), I would need to teach about 10 classes of 50 students (lectures, marking, seminars, all of it).

That is violently nonsensical, and, I have no doubt, pretty representative of how teaching is counted up across a range of institutions. I should say that these sorts of systems also produce a bunch of perverse incentives: managers understand how poorly the system represents the work and devise fudges and work-arounds to ameliorate its effects, sometimes responsibly, sometimes as favouritism or workplace corruption. In part because teaching is so poorly remunerated in terms of time, it is also structurally undervalued in terms of wages for hourly-paid teaching staff. No one and nothing benefits here except the accountants and the university bottom line.

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My report ended up being about 5,000 words long and maybe we will see some changes made to the ways that academic work, and time, is counted up where I work. But I am not holding my breath. For me this type of issue is simply not solvable with local, branch and workforce, forms of activism. It is structural and systemic. One of the ‘Four Fights’ that the union went into last year’s strike action to win on was workload, rightly so, and we need to find ways to get meaningful national bargaining around workload back onto the table if the absurdities I spent my Christmas lockdown ‘holidays’ investigating are ever going to change.

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David Hitchcock

David Hitchcock

Historian of poverty, utopia, and colonialism. Author of Vagrancy in English Culture and Society, 1650-1750 and co-editor of the Routledge History of Poverty.