Higher Education Strategy Associates

Tag Archives: Workload

March 01

Under-managed universities

I have been having some interesting conversations with folks recently about “overwork” in academia.  It is clear to me that a lot of professors are absolutely frazzled.  It is also clear to me that on average professors work hard – not necessarily because The Man is standing over them with a whip but because as a rule academics are professional and driven, and hey, status within academia is competitive and lots of people want to keep up with the Joneses.

But sometimes when I talk to profs – and for context here the ones I speak to most often are ones roughly my own age (mid-career) or younger – what I hear a lot of is about work imbalance (i.e. some professors are doing more work than others) or, to put it more bluntly, how much “deadwood” there is in universities (the consensus answer is somewhere between 20-30%).  And therefore, I think it is reasonable to ask the question: to what extent do some people’s “overwork” stem from the fact that some professors aren’t pulling their weight?

This is obviously something of a sticky question, and I had an interesting time discussing it with a number of interlocutors of twitter last week.  My impression is that opinion roughly divides up into three camps:

1)      The self-righteous Camp.  “This is ridiculous I’ve never heard professors talking like this about each other, we all work hard and anyway if anyone is unproductive it’s because they’re dealing with kids or depressed due to the uncaring, neoliberal administration smashing its boot into the face of academia forever…”

2)      The Hard Science Camp. “Well, you know there are huge differences in workload expectation across the institution – do you know how much work it is to run a lab? Those humanities profs get away with murder…”

3)       The “We’ve earned it” Camp “Hey look at all the professions where you put in the hours at the start and get to relax later on. We’re just like that. Would you want to work hours like a junior your whole life? And by the way older profs just demonstrate productivity on a broader basis than just teaching and research….”

There is probably something to each of these points of view.  People do have to juggle external priorities with academic ones at some points in their lives; that said, since most of the people who made the remarks about deadwood have young kids themselves, I doubt that explains the phenomenon. There probably are different work expectations across faculties; that said, in the examples I was using, my interlocutors were talking about people in their own units, so that’s doesn’t affect my observation, much.  Perhaps there are expectations of taking it easier as careers progress, but I never made the argument that deadwood is related to seniority so the assumption that this was what caused deadwood was… interesting).  So while acknowledging that all of these points may be worthwhile, I still tend to believe that at least part of the solution to overwork is dealing with the problem of work imbalances.

Now, at some universities – mainly ones which have significantly upped their research profile in the last couple of decades – this might genuinely be tough because the expectations of staff who were hired in the 1970s or 1980s might be very, very different than the expectations of ones hired today.  Places like Ryerson or MacEwan are obvious examples, but can also be true at places like Waterloo, which thought of itself as a mostly undergraduate institution even into the early 1990s.  Simply put, there is a huge generational gap at some universities in how people understand “the job” because they were hired in totally different contexts.

What strikes me about all of this is that neither management nor – interestingly – labour seem to have much interest in measuring workload for the purpose of equalizing it.  Sure, there’s lots of bean counting, especially in the sciences, especially when it comes to research contracts and publications and stuff like that.  But what’s missing is the desire to use to adjust individuals’ work loads in order to reach common goals more efficiently.

My impression is that in many departments, “workload management” means, at most, equalizing undergraduate teaching requirements.  Grad supervisions?  Those are all over the place.  “Service”?  Let’s not even pretend that’s well-measured.  Research effort?  Once tenure has been given, it’s largely up to individuals how much they want to do.  The fiercely competitive may take on 40 or 50 hours a week on top of their other duties, others much less.  Department heads – usually elected by professors in the department themselves – have limited incentive and means to get the overachievers to maybe cool it sometimes and the underachievers to up their game.

In short, while it’s fashionable to say that professors are being “micro-managed” by universities, I would argue that on the rather basic task of regulating workload for common good, academics are woefully under-managed.  I’d probably go even further and say most people know they are undermanaged and many wish it could change.  But at the end of the day, academics as a voting mass on Senates and faculty unions consistently seem to prefer undermanagement and “freedom” to management and (perhaps) more work fairness.

I wonder why this is. I also wonder if there is not a gender component to the issue.

What do you think?  Comments welcome.

September 23

Another Reason to Get Serious About Measuring Workloads

So I see the Laurentian faculty union is threatening to strike.  The main issues are “workload” (they’d like to have lower undergraduate teaching loads to deal with an influx of graduate students) and pay (they’d like to “close the gap” with the rest of Ontario).

This is where the entire system would be well served by having some understanding of what, exactly, everybody is getting paid for.  Obviously, if you’re doing the same amount and type of work as someone else, you’ve got a pretty good claim to parity.  The problem is that what professors do – that is, their expected workload and outputs – can vary significantly from one place to another.

Lets’s take the issue of graduate supervision.  Laurentian profs are doing more of it than they used to – overall, 6% of full-time enrolments at Laurentian were at the graduate level in 2012, up from 4% five years earlier.  But if we’re going to use “the Ontario average” as a goal, it’s worth noting that across the province, 12% of full-time students are graduate students.  So on average, Laurentian professors do only about half as much graduate supervision as other professors across the province – and probably less if we were to weight doctoral supervision more highly.

Well, what about undergraduate teaching – maybe they do more of it that others?  On paper, they teach 3/2 (except in Science and Engineering, where its 2/2).  That’s the same as at most smaller Ontario institutions, and somewhat more than you’d see at larger institutions where 2/2 or even 2/1 is the norm.  But that’s not the whole story: class sizes are smaller at Laurentian.  Sixty-seven per cent of all undergraduate classes at Laurentian are under 30 students, compared to just 51% at York (though, surprisingly, the figure at Queen’s is almost the same as Laurentian – 65%).  But ask yourself: which takes more work, a 2/1 with average class sizes of 60, or a 3/2 with an average class size of 30?  Hard to tell.  But how can you make arguments about “equal pay for equal work” unless you know?

Then there’s research output.  If you use tri-council funding as a metric, and normalize for field of study, Laurentian profs in Science and Engineering are winning about 55% of the national average – higher than Ryerson, but less than half of what Carleton gets.  That’s not too bad.  In humanities and social sciences, however, Laurentian wins only 21% of the national average – about a fifth of what they get at Ottawa, and a third of what they get at Laurier (all data from our Measuring Academic Research in Canada paper, available here.  I could go on with data about publications and citations, but you get the idea: Laurentian professors’ research output isn’t all that close to the provincial average.

To recap: Laurentian is a school where (on average) professors have lower graduate teaching responsibilities and research output than the Ontario average, and an undergraduate teaching load that is higher than average in terms of number of classes, but is arguably lower in terms of total students taught.  So where should their pay be, relative to the provincial average?  Probably somewhere below the average, which indeed is where it is.

But the question for this dispute is: how far below?  Better comparative data, combined with some agreement about the relative weight of different parts of the professorial job, would take a lot of heat out of this debate.

June 09

Teaching Load Versus Workload

I often get into discussions that go like this:

Me: Over time, the number of classes each professor teaches has gone down.  Places where people used to teach 3/2 (three classes one term, two the other) now teach 2/1.  Places where 4/3 or even 4/4 were common are now 3/2.   This has been one of the main things making higher education more expensive in Canada.

Someone else (usually a prof): Yeah, but classes are so much larger now than they used to be.

Me: Do you not think that teaching fewer classes maybe the cause of higher average class size?  Do you think that if everyone taught more classes average class size would fall?

(nota bene: This isn’t the whole story, obviously.  Student-staff ratios have gone up to such a degree that even if profs were teaching the same number of courses, numbers would still be up a bit.  Though how much is hard to say, because of the changing use of sessional lecturers.)

Someone else: Does it matter?  Same number of students, same amount of work.

Me: Is it?  Are three classes of fifty students actually the same amount as five classes of thirty students?  Doesn’t less class prep time more than make up for the increase in marking?

Someone else: Um, well, yeah.  Probably.  But we’re still doing lots of committee work!  And tenure requirements have become much more punishing than they used to be!  And those teaching loads don’t count graduate student supervisions.

Me: No doubt, committee work can take up a lot of time – though much of it exists simply to make the university less effective.  But that research one – that’s not distributed equally across the university, is it? I mean, we know that the pace of publication falls pretty quickly after tenure is granted (see figure 3 of this PPP article by Herb Emery).  And not all university research is of the same quality: Well over 10% of all Canadian faculty (24% in the humanities) have never had a publication cited by anyone else (HESA research, which we demonstrated back here).

Someone else:  And graduate supervision?

Me: Fair point.  But graduate supervision is all over the place.  Supervising a PhD in Science tends to be more intensive than in Arts.  And course-based Masters’ student are increasingly more like undergraduates than doctoral students in the loads they bring.  Hard to measure.

Someone else: But shouldn’t all this be measured?

Me: Of course.  But notice how Canadian university Collective Bargaining Agreements avoid the question of overall workload, even though they often get really specific about teaching loads.  Universities don’t want to measure this stuff because it would expose how many profs are working way too hard, and unions don’t want to measure this stuff because it would expose how many profs aren’t.    Look how hard both sides worked to discredit the HEQCO paper on professorial productivity, which posed exactly that question.

Someone else: is this ever going to change?

Me: Governments could put pressure on institutions to actually enforce the bits of the CBAs that require faculty to actually do the hard-to-measure stuff (committee work, research).  Junior staff could make more of a fuss within the unions to start ensuring equal treatment of workloads within the bargaining unit.  Short of that, no.

Someone else: Aren’t you a bit cynical?

Me: Around here, hard not to be.

December 07

A Zinger from HEQCO

To One Yonge Street, and the offices of the redoubtable Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario (HEQCO), who yesterday released a small publication with the unassuming name, The Productivity of the Ontario Public Postsecondary.  The title may be a little on the soporific side, but the contents are anything but.

There are some real gems in here.  Did you know that 39% of all granting council funding went to Quebec?  OK, the grants on average are somewhat smaller than they are in Ontario, but that’s still an incredible number.  It’s not as though, on average, their publication records are better than anyone else’s (they’re not – see Table 7, which we, here at HESA, contributed to the report).  By what quirk of the funding council system does this happen?  What’s the secret to their success?  Inquiring minds want to know if this is replicable elsewhere?

But for my money, the really explosive section is Table 9, which takes data from four collaborating institutions (Guelph, Queen’s, Laurier, and York) in order to look at staff workloads.  Specifically, workloads were analyzed according to whether a professor had any “research output” (defined – rather generously, I think – as having held any external grant, or had a publication in the 2010-2011 academic year).  Here’s what they found:

A couple of points here:  First, the comparison for science isn’t especially interesting since there are almost no non-research-active faculty there (over 80% of them hold an NSERC grant at any given time).  In the SSHRC fields it’s a different story – it’s closer to 50-50.  But, apparently, the ones who are research-active are not bunking off teaching to do their research; in fact, they only teach a half-course less per year, on average, than those who are non-research-active.  Perhaps the better question here is, “what exactly are all those non-research-active profs doing with their time”?

Obviously, there are some possible ways this result could be innocuous.  It could be that the non-research-active profs spend more time devoted to service, or that the line between research-active and non-research-active isn’t especially clear-cut in humanities and social sciences (if publication is mostly in the form of books, it’s easy to go a year, or more, without a new one).   You’d have to do a lot more digging before jumping to any definitive conclusions.

But just the fact that HEQCO got four universities to go even this far with their data is a big deal.   It’s the biggest move anyone’s made so far to start engaging publicly on the issue of faculty productivity.  So kudos to HEQCO and the four institutions that participated.  The sector is going to need a lot more of this if it’s going to adjust to the new fiscal reality.