The survey that didn’t surprise us

Stress-ZebraStripesSome surveys shock us, others fill us with a sense of relief that it’s not just us. The recent Research Excellence Framework (REF) survey undertaken by the University and College Union (UCU) does both.

The summary of key findings  states that nearly two thirds of the 7,000 respondents said they thought the REF had ‘a detrimental impact on the sector’ and believed it created ‘unreasonable expectations of research outputs’. More than half of respondents also said they would ‘like to see the REF replaced by an alternative method.’ Among the most shocking, though not surprising, findings was that ‘67% of all respondents (and 73% of women responding) felt unable to undertake the necessary work on REF outputs without working excessive … hours.’

In UCU’s 2012 Stress at Work survey ‘over 59% of respondents in HE indicated they worked 46 or more hours a week’ (while being paid for 35), and ‘over 35% worked 51 or more hours.’ Over half of the respondents felt ‘pressured to work long hours’, with many citing the REF as contributing factor to this pressure.

I don’t need a UCU survey to tell me that. I have seen my colleagues panicking about getting that last item for their REF submission out on time, panicking about the quality of the book they had to rush out before the deadline, even though an extra month or two might have enabled them to add that extra bit of research that would have given it the edge. I have also panicked myself hoping to exchange an item I didn’t like so much by something I felt would rate more highly. I have also chided myself for spending my time editing collected essays while the University keeps telling me the two books I have been so proud of and enjoyed so much producing with my friends and colleagues won’t count much in the world of the REF. They want monographs and articles in the top journals. You know the story.

Balancing research and teaching

Another key problem cited in Section 10 of the report, which covers workload issues, was the inability to meet the demands of the REF while undertaking regular teaching duties, including lesson prep or giving feedback to students. According to the survey, the stress caused by the REF is ‘combined with the increasing administrative duties that academics face, including teaching-related administration, grant applications and the significant amount of bureaucracy related to the REF itself.’

I find myself so many times politely (or not so politely) ushering students out of my office to finish that lecture Power Point five minutes before I have to go to the next class, or putting the finishing touches to an article or a chapter before it has to go to the journal, editor or publisher. Conversely, I have also found myself taking home a piece of work because I was talking to a student and didn’t manage to finish it in the office. I hardly ever finish in the evening what I set out to do in the morning, and then I get another email from Registry that I was meant to hand in form X, Y or Z – yesterday. And have I marked…? In other words, something has to give, and in many cases – poor conscientious creatures that we are – this is our free time.

As I said, I don’t need a UCU survey to tell me that the REF causes stress, but I am glad someone articulates these issues, because I feel less alone with my perma-stress compounded by guilt that I don’t have enough time for my students, nevermind for the people nearest and dearest to me. The fact that women feel the pressure more is in many cases based on additional household and childcare duties as well as a high commitment to teaching with women often being seen as the more compassionate ‘go to’ people in the department. The consequence is that academics often find themselves working during what is supposed to be the weekend, their day off or their summer holidays.

Here is the bitter truth told by REF survey:

  • While 19% of all respondents (and 14% of female respondents) indicated that they could generally get all their work done on their REF outputs within normal or reasonable working hours, 29% of all respondents, and 30% of women, indicated that they found it necessary to work most evenings. 31% of all respondents, and 35% of women found it necessary to work most weekends. Nearly 34% of all respondents, and 39% of women, often worked on their outputs during/instead of annual leave. Close to 36% of all respondents and over 41% of women often worked during public holidays/closure days.

As someone who can’t remember the last term-time weekend spent completely without working, I am surprised that these results haven’t caused a revolution yet. But there are many factors to consider. Some academics love their work so much and are so dedicated that they don’t mind spending all or most of their time working. In the current economic climate many are grateful to have a job, and none of us like to disappoint. The fear of being demoted to a teaching-only contract or to be otherwise penalised by their departments for underperforming in the REF is also responsible for putting additional pressure on academics. In other words, most respondents do not only find the REF unhelpful in assessing the quality of academic research but also utterly demoralising.

The current research culture makes life difficult for many of us, when things could be so easy: less stressed lecturers have brighter ideas and are nicer to their students.


By thehistorywoman

Historian & journalist.


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