Full Economic Fiction

In the recent Comptroller and Auditor General’s report on the universities, much is made of the need for “robust” (even with the scare quotes, I gagged a little when writing that) data on the “costs” of universities, particularly the costs associated with academic staff salaries.  At the recent Dáil Public Accounts Committee hearings, UCD President Hugh Brady was rightfully raked over the coals for having spent millions on emoluments for his Senior Management Team (including himself) over and above what the HEA allowed.  But the committee, particularly Róisín Shortall TD (Labour), were also somewhat exercised by the report’s claim that the Full Economic Costing model had not been fully implemented at the universities and that accurate information about academic workloads and hours might not be available.

To say that this was a distraction, is something of an understatement.  Faced with gross mismanagement and possibly illegal pocket-lining on the part of the UCD administration that has contributed to the massive deficits the University is running, Deputy Shortall could think of no more pressing issue to bring to the nation’s attention than the headline-grabbing but utterly specious claim that lecturers work an average of 15 hours per week (the Irish Times article misreports the claim as being that lecturers might work “as little as” 15 hours per week whereas Deputy Shortall was clearly extrapolating that this was the average workload).  This was in the context of Shortall’s insistence on the need to impose “minimum workloads” and derive accurate measurements of academic worktime in the absence of which, in her view, there would be no way to “measure academic performance.”

Deputy Shortall’s intervention is so ill-informed that it is hard to know where to begin.  For one thing, she seems to think that the number of student contact hours a lecturer has per week is exactly the same thing as the number of lecturer contact hours a student has per week, as the following exchange makes clear:

Deputy Róisín Shortall: In terms of the 40-40-20 referred to earlier, if six hours is 40% of the week, we are talking about the full week being 15 hours.

Dr. Michael Murphy: The Deputy must take into account as well that to teach, to have a contact hour, one must have extensive preparatory time. Figures internationally vary from three to four hours per contact hour of preparatory time. The complexity—–

Deputy Róisín Shortall: This is a matter of considerable concern to parents. Many of us have had experience where young people having worked hard in the leaving certificate go to college, perhaps with a lot of points, and discover they do maybe six, seven or eight hours per week. Quite frankly, that is unacceptable. I would say it is quite dispiriting for the students themselves embark on a course in which they expect to be challenged but where it turns out they only have a handful of hours per week. It is very hard to see where the accountability comes in for the very substantial amounts of public moneys that go into the universities to pay for staff.

The students, in her view, are disappointed that “they” (which can only refer to the students here) “do maybe six, seven or eight hours per week”. Apparently these hours that they “do” are the same hours that the lecturers “do”: 6 or so. This is just false. Students in Arts (which is lighter than some other areas on the student workload) “do” at least 12 hours per week. And that’s just the hours of contact with lecturers. We’ll leave aside my bewilderment at the claim that students are “dispirited” at the prospect of not having enough contact hours and how that sits with the 35-40% attendance rates that my colleagues and I experience for each and every contact hour that they do have.

Furthermore, the “15 hours” figure that made the national news is extrapolated on the basis of two other sets of numbers: the claim that lecturers have 180 contact hours a year divided by 30 weeks a year gives 6 hours per week; and if workloads divide between teaching, research and administration on a 40%/40%/20% basis then 6 hours is 40% of 15 total hours spent working.  Never mind that teaching isn’t just contact hours: there’s preparation, correcting, teaching-related research (what?!), pastoral-type work (e-mailing students and office hours), putting things up on Blackboard or other “learning management systems” and more.  If we estimate (extremely) conservatively that each teaching hour requires at least 2 hours of these ancillary activities, suddenly the 40% is up to 18 hours and the total is 45 hours per week.  But that’s a figure that wouldn’t grab any headlines.

But surely the point is that we don’t know what the correct figure is.  Isn’t there then an (urgent!) need to collect information about the amount of time lecturers spend on various activities? You know: in the name of accountability to the taxpayer (who is apparently a raging Puritan who only cares about how much you are working and not at all about the quality of what you are doing). Don’t we need a robust (there’s that word again) information-gathering process to give us a sense of the full economic costs of the nation’s academics?

There is such a process in place.  It’s called the Full Economic Costing exercise.  We currently at UCD fill out an “Academic Activity Profile” form 3 times a year. It looks like this:

Excel spreadsheet

It asks for percentages of time spent doing various things, as you can see, although disappointingly, the activities only add up to 100% rather than the 110% that we have a right to expect from everyone these days.

Now, this form, like almost the entirety of this facile debate, shows almost no understanding of what a lecturer does. For example: suppose I sit down and read a scholarly book on a topic of professional interest to me. How am I to apportion the percentages for that activity, assuming that my teaching and research are entirely imbricated the one with the other?  Suppose now that the book is scholarly but only tangentially related to my research.  In either case, anything I put down will not even be a wild guess.  A wild guess implies that there is a truth of the matter that the guess is (wildly) aiming toward.  This case is worse than that, for anything I put down would be nothing but a fiction, for there is no truth of the matter absent a set of specious assumptions. Yet it is proposed that we assemble such fictions from everyone working in third level in order to arrive at some kind of true picture of the costs of teaching and research.  One can only marvel at the administrative magic by which a giant assemblage of fictions is transmogrified into truth. For here is the actual truth: virtually none of the work academics do breaks down so nicely into the categories on this form or any set of replacement categories. So if you want to determine costs on this basis you are quite simply wasting my time and yours.

Much was made in the committee about the (urgent!) need to replace reporting in percentages with reporting of the actual hours worked.  Yet doing so does nothing to rectify the conceptual and metaphysical confusion of the original form.  All that will have been done in that case is to replace one set of nonsensical measurements with another. If I spend an hour reading a book that’s somewhat related to a course I teach and that I might use one day in a research paper, how am I to apportion that hour on such a form? If I raise my eyes from the page to contemplate the ideas I’ve just read for 2 minutes and 35 seconds, does that time count or not? What if, during the 2 minutes and 35 seconds, my attention wanders to thoughts of my evening meal?  Do I subtract that?  And how shall I keep track of it all? Do you get a sense of how absurd all of this is?

Never mind the quite obvious fact that the nature of my job (like that of a TD, I might add) is such that I have no idea how many hours I spend on various activities. For I don’t keep track: I don’t punch a clock before I reply at 9pm to student e-mails. And if  it is proposed that such punch clocks be implemented, then I’m afraid what will result is that lecturers will start to work less, not more. Most will stop answering e-mails or doing much of anything else that isn’t “on the clock.”

The fact is, lecturing is a hard job to get. You have to have put in many years with almost no remuneration just to be able to get to the point of applying for a job. Those that do get jobs have been through a winnowing process that is stricter than in virtually any other employment. Lecturers are committed professionals who have generally sacrificed much to get where they are. Given that, it would be quite anomalous if large numbers of them turned out to be dossers. In my experience, most lecturers work far above the hours of those in other jobs, in part because they love their work. Start questioning that commitment too forcefully and you may find that it vanishes. You will have successfully replaced the complete dedication of most lecturers with a set of banal contractual relations more suitable to a sausage factory.

To my mind, this entire debate as brought to the public’s consciousness by Deputy Shortall, will have incredibly destructive effects that all those in government, the HEA and university administrations ought to think long and hard about. Irish Universities have to compete globally for students but, even more so, for academic talent. I myself was recruited internationally to UCD. If Ireland becomes known (as the UK did in the 1990s) as a place where academics are closely monitored and controlled, it will become incredibly difficult to recruit academics to come to Irish universities or convince the best home-grown talent to stay, especially in light of recent pay cuts, etc. In the current zeal to measure and account for the money spent, we may find that we have rendered Irish universities utterly mediocre, possibly for generations.

There is enormous waste in Irish universities, but it has nothing to do with lecturers or the hours they work. As the C&AG’s report makes clear, this waste is almost entirely the result of management activities and not those of frontline teaching and research staff. UCD, to take only the example I know best, wasted millions on consultants, further millions on the Gateway Project boondoggle and still further millions on illegitimate bonuses and allowances for those who are not engaged at all with the fundamental activities of the University (teaching and research) and who are, apparently, answerable to no one. Deputy Shortall’s line of questioning in the PAC took valuable attention away from this important issue and, indeed, muddied the waters, leading the public to the false belief that all university staff are equally to blame.

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1 Response to Full Economic Fiction

  1. The form could certainly use some work. If a junior Business Analyst handed it to me, it say it was a fair first draft, make some obvious critiques and tell them to shop it around some academics for a reality check.

    The smarter question is what is the form for, and is capturing information on the process the right thing to do. I’m all about the outcomes. For a University Lecturer, the outcome is learning, learning for society, through research, learning for students, through teaching.
    This is hard stuff to quantify, although our summative assessments and research quality assessments purport to do so. We can no doubt do better. It is better to try and measure the difficult and important outcomes than the easy but irrelevant process.

    I’d also note that while I agree that the vast majority of lecturers work long and hard, not all do. There is a small proportion who have figured out that they can coast it, flip their teaching off to hungry postgrads and cite each other in meaningless papers in the Journal of Applied Verbosity. Maybe they burnt out. Maybe they figure they paid their dues in the long hungry years before. Whatever.

    No organisation staffed by real humans is without these drones, but Universities have no way to remove them, or remotivate them. The dead weight they represent is small, more than made up for by the diligence of their colleagues, but I believe they pose a substantial risk to the credibility of the sector when people like Deputy Shorthall get wind of them.

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