To their credit, the UCU did reply to my message - at 10pm on Sunday, after an acknowledgement on Saturday morning. It came from Matt Waddup who is the union national head of campaigns. I’ve checked with Matt and he is happy for our exchange to be made public.
Good evening Stuart,
As promised here are my answers to your questions:
- I’ve exceeded my contracted hours this week, and yet I don’t feel I’ve moved the current article I’m writing forward sufficiently. Should I leave it sitting for another week?
ANSWER: Our advice is that you finish the task in hand but do not take on new or additional duties.
- a colleague has asked if I am willing to be involved in a grant application. I think this would be excellent for my research, for building links with colleagues at my institution and elsewhere. I would benefit, as would the university, if this was successful. But it would require time this weekend. What should I do?
ANSWER: As above. Leaving UCU’s action to one side, If you are finding yourself having to use your weekend on a regular basis to do these duties you should speak to your HoD about your workload.
- there is an opportunity for a research fellowship, but the deadline is very tight. Where do I find the time to apply for this unless I exceed my contracted hours?
- I edit a journal. What do you suggest?
As above. Our Leading Counsel describes the essence of working to contract as “refusing to go the extra mile”. If the journal is extra to your duties at Durham and is a separate contract between you and publisher, it is not directly affected by the action. If it is a central part of your duties and you do not have time to do it within a reasonable working week, I suggest you discuss with your HoD.
- should I refuse to do any external review work – grants, journal articles, book proposals and manuscripts – until this dispute is over?
If these are duties of equal weight to those you manage to perform within your normal working week you should discuss your workload with your HoD to ensure you have enough time to do them without overload.
- should I refuse to write job/fellowship/grant references for colleagues, ex-students, people whose PhDs I have examined etc.? Who would lose out then?
If you consistently find yourself doing these tasks in your own time you should discuss your workloads with your HoD.
Finally a general comment. It is obvious from your questions that you take your responsibilities as a senior academic seriously – both in helping the next generation with references etc and in taking your subject forward with regard to journals, external review work and so on.
I think, personally, that senior academics also have a responsibility in this dispute and beyond to lead by example with regard to the chronic workloads which are endemic for academics. The last major survey in 2009 showed an average working week of 55 hours, with many working longer.
I do not know your circumstances but I would guess that as a professor it is easier for you to make a stand about excessive workload than it would be for an early career academic and also that many of your younger peers would be influenced by how many hours you work when they try to manage their own work/life balance.
You ask if others have asked similar questions. Some have. Most though recognise the issues at stake and are doing their best to support the union. Five minutes before I started to answer your message I received one from a senior lecturer which simply said: “Thank you UCU. Once I’d racked up my 48th hour this week, I took my kids out for the day on Saturday. What bliss not to feel guilty about not working all weekend.”
Thank you for taking the trouble to contact me and for your support for the union. If you want any further, specific help send me a copy of your contract and any workload model that is current within your department.
Matt Waddup, National Head
This is my reply:
Thanks Matt. I appreciate the response, although there is a certain irony in you doing this on a Sunday at 10pm.
The advice you provide is fairly generic, and the notion of not taking on more work and discussing overall workload with a line manager is obviously sound. But I don’t think it understands how research actually works. I’ve long felt that the UCU doesn’t really get this, which is unfortunate given the people it is representing.
In particular ‘finish the task in hand’ in relation to research is not something that can be done in a day or two. An article takes weeks or months of work to complete; a book years. Deadlines for grants are inflexible, and not doing the work preparing for them – or doing it rushed – means they are not applied for or not successful. The fellowship would buy me out of teaching and administration for 6-12 months – a deal that feels worthwhile in terms of creating the space to do research effectively. Editing a journal is complicated – yes, formally I am working on behalf of a publisher, but the department takes credit for this in things like the RAE/REF. I don’t get a formal workload credit for doing it, but it is part of my job. It’s an example that doesn’t easily fit your idea of ‘working to contract’. I find the idea of ‘refusing to go the extra mile’ unhelpful. It’s all over your FAQs, and it sounds nice, but it’s facile and insulting.
In sum, if I was to follow your advice, I would talk to my head of department and not take on additional result projects, grants etc. But who would be disadvantaged by this? The people whose reference letters I don’t write; the journals and their authors whose papers I don’t review; my own research career as that paper doesn’t get submitted or the grant not applied for. My formally contracted teaching and administrative work is clear. We have a statement of our workload – attached – which sets this out. It doesn’t yet include new PhD students, level 1 tutees, and exam marking but they too are clearly specified. But it’s the grey area stuff that isn’t stated – i.e. what we do with our time on research. The nature of research is such that – by and large – academics set their own agenda and plan their own time. But that strength – the autonomy it gives us – is also the biggest problem. And it is especially the case when we are told by the union to ‘work to contract’.
The relation between my career and my university’s standing is not separable, but I get a clear sense that my career would be the first to suffer. I can think of plenty of work tasks I could not do while this dispute is ongoing that would set my own research trajectory back; but few that would genuinely have an effect on the university – at least in the short term. This would perhaps be a price worth paying if I genuinely felt that this was effective action and that the Union would fully support its membership through to the end. I don’t feel you did when there was the pay dispute and a refusal to mark a few years ago, when I felt the union ‘suspending’ the action (i.e. we did the marking) completely surrendered our position of strength.
The first stage in fully supporting the membership is understanding the nature of their work. As I said at the outset, I appreciate you taking the time to reply, but I really don’t think the union understands the way that research works.
I should note that I am posting about this on my personal blog at www.progressivegeographies.com.
Good morning Stuart,
The irony of timing is not lost on me either!
I think you have slightly misunderstood my advice. You seem to be saying that a large chunk of your 40% research time has to be done outside “normal” working hours. What I am saying is that your employer has a responsibility to ensure you are able to do more of that within a sensible working pattern. No one is trying to stop you doing things you enjoy, but I am really concerned that you clearly feel under such pressure to work these excessive hours to do something which as you point out constitutes 40% of your time.
The union understands the way research works well enough. We understand too that the idea of “not” going the extra mile is, under normal circumstances, anathema to staff. However these are not normal circumstances – detrimental pension changes have been imposed by the employers – and the fact remains that more than 75% of members voting, supported a work to contract and other actions.
I think you are right of course that autonomy is a double edged sword but the reality of modern academic life means that for many – especially those in early careers – they don’t really have as much control over their work as you suggest. Large teaching and admin loads combined with ever increasing pressure to deliver research deliver the mirage of autonomy but in reality lead to excessive workloads and a disruption of work/home balance.
So far, we are really very pleased with the response from members to what we recognise is a difficult ask.
Thanks for the tip re your blog. I am happy for you to post our exchange on there.
Thanks Matt. I do appreciate the replies.
I don’t think I misunderstood your advice. Yes, a lot of the research has to be done outside normal hours. My head of department – who is an active union member, by the way – will say that the research I can do during term time is what can be fitted into the hours left after the teaching and administrative duties. The argument will be that the 40% is over the year, and that in term time it is not always possible to find lots of time to do research. But the deadlines for grants etc. don’t fit with such a workload model. There is a bigger, and ongoing, issue about the department’s lack of recognition of external duties such as journal editing that they do not formally support and yet benefit from. I’ve been working on this. I completely agree with the assessment of what has happened in higher education. And yes, this is in many respects worse for those at an early stage of career.
In sum, you are asking me – and other academics – to make sacrifices in terms of their own research careers in order to somehow send a message to employers. Where there are teaching and administrative duties that fall outside of the contract I will willingly take the union line on this. I just don’t think it works the same way in terms of research.
I voted for the industrial action. I support the union’s cause. I just think that this work to contract policy – in terms of research - is a poorly thought through idea that will have minimal effect on employers and detrimental effect on academics.