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Universities’ reliance on free labour is unsustainable


Work serving the broader academy shouldn’t be forced into evenings and weekends, says Marcus Munafò

In recent months, several colleagues—ranging from senior lecturers to full professors—have left academia. The reasons are various, but one recurring theme is disillusionment with the widening gap between why they entered academia and what it has become. People have always left academia, of course, but for those with faculty positions to leave feels more unusual.

In recent decades, UK universities have reshaped themselves to respond to the demands of both politicians and newly created markets in student fees and research income. This professionalisation of their business function has brought profound changes, perhaps the greatest of which is the introduction of student fees and growth in student numbers. Not all of these changes are necessarily negative, but they have changed the nature of academic work.

As universities have become Run Like Businesses, demands on academics’ time have grown. Oversight of teaching and marking has increased, as institutions seek to ensure that the student experience lives up to the claims in the brochure. Administrative tasks that once fell to professional services staff, whose workloads are also rising, are passed to academics. Often, these jobs come around relatively infrequently—putting in a staffing request is one example—meaning one must relearn how to do them.

The result is that academics spend their days on jobs that do little to generate knowledge and which others could do more efficiently. Academic managers, such as heads of department, show little awareness of what staff workloads actually are, certainly at the level of the individual academic.

Community service

This alone would be cause for concern. But there is a deeper problem: at least implicitly, universities do not see wider scholarly activity in service of the broader academy as their concern. My own institution defines activities such as reviewing manuscripts as “outside work” that has to be declared. Even if universities did understand what they expect from individual academics, the picture would be incomplete without these wider activities central to academic life.

Academics are part of a community who happen to work at a particular institution. Institutional affiliation is only a part of our identity. Much of what we do—service activities, such as reviewing manuscripts and grants, writing letters of recommendation, and serving on editorial boards—is rooted in this sense of community and serves the wider academic endeavour.

When there were fewer students, less administrative bureaucracy and less pressure to publish and win grants, academic time could be divided between these activities comfortably and there was little oversight of what was being done or how long it was taking.

Student fees, and marketisation more generally, have focused the minds of senior management on income streams, particularly from teaching. But academia is about more than teaching.

Some activities do fit a mercantilist mindset: research, for example, loses money for universities, but at least in a measurable way. Many things, though, are unquantifiable: how to measure the cost, let alone the value, of time spent reviewing, editing, writing letters of recommendation and so on?

Tunnel vision

As universities focus on their balance books, they risk losing sight of the wider academy. And academics increasingly have to fit this activity into evenings and weekends. The result is that the business model of academia relies on free labour; it risks becoming a sector that knows the price of everything—in ever more detail—but the value of nothing.

Tasks that serve the academic ethos need to be recognised, valued and factored into academic workloads. This will require academics to give senior management the space to lead. Real change cannot be achieved simply by changing how universities are run and what senior management prioritises. It will also require academics themselves to adapt; turning back the clock is not an option.

We need a shared vision of a vibrant, modern academic community, one that balances universities’ need to manage their income streams with the need to remain academic institutions, home to an engaged and creative community. Many voices can speak to this vision, in particular those organisations that represent the wider academy, such as learned societies, but which currently have little influence on researchers’ working environment.

Achieving this will require creativity, challenge and compromise. Starting to document what academics actually do would be a step in the right direction, if it meant institutions acknowledging everything that contributes to workload. The more staff look to their institution to acknowledge the scope and scale of their work, the more that work becomes the employer’s concern. The question then is how to manage workload without over-regulating the academic endeavour. 

Marcus Munafò is professor of biological psychology and associate pro vice-chancellor, research culture, at the University of Bristol

A version of this article appeared in Research Europe