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More humane but less human?

Sue Farran, University of Dundee

This paper reflects on the author’s ‘lived experience’ of being a legal academic set against some of the contextual changes that have taken place in higher education in recent decades and, in the light of empirical research that has been undertaken by others, considers whether the working environment, although perhaps more humane, has in fact become less human, and if so, what we – as mere mortals – can do about it.
Universities, academia and the role of the law lecturer have changed considerably over the past 20 years. Many facets of this have been well documented elsewhere (see for example Baron 2000:146).

In this paper I propose to summarise the general trends, to draw attention to some of the consequences these have had on the lecturing experience, to glance at national and institutional responses to some of these and to concentrate on some aspects of the working environment which have perhaps been under-considered but which deserve more attention if academic life is to remain human.

General trends

Notable features with which many are familiar are:

  • reduction in funding – the Dearing Report (1997) found that public funding per student had fallen by 40% in the previous 20 years (para 3.32). The replacement of the University Grants Committee with the Funding Councils in 1992 brought higher education firmly under state control (Cownie 2004).
  • reduction in security of tenure – about 50% of academic and academic support staff are now on short term contracts (Sally Hunt, General Secretary of the Association of University Teachers, quoted in Goddard 2003)
  • increasing state control over the curriculum (Barnett 1992:7) – on top of the controls imposed by the professional bodies of the Bar Council and the Law Society on undergraduate law degrees (although the last agreed Joint statement on legal education (PDF file) was issued in 1999 since then there have been at least three consultation papers on the academic stage of training, and there is every possibility that yet again changes will be made in the next few years)
  • increase in student numbers and related decrease in staff:student ratios – for example, in 1990 there were 1.2 million students in universities and colleges (Mackay, Scott and Smith 1995:22). In 1994 this had risen to 1.5 million (Brennan and Ramsden 1996:2). Staff:student ratios changed from 1:8 in 1970 to 1:17 in 1994 (Baron 2000:148), and are likely to be considerably more than that today.
  • market led policies on course design, recruitment and delivery (Tasker and Packham 1994:182; Mackay, Scott and Smith 1995) and the management of higher education
  • changes in student profiles – wider access, more flexible delivery and ideas of lifelong learning, and consequent new demands on curriculum development (see Welch 2000)
  • the imposition of tuition and top-up fees
  • the introduction in 1992 of the Quality Assurance Agency (QAA) – with its emphasis on auditing of standards and accountability. Introduced under the Further and Higher Education Act 1992, the QAA is hugely expensive to run and has provoked considerable resentment at a number of different levels (see Cownie 2004).
  • the introduction of the Research Assessment Exercise in 1985 – which rather than responding to research, drives and directs it

Negative consequences

While the changes which have taken place have happened incrementally and in some cases insidiously, today many academics are faced with a working environment characterised by:

  • work overload and long hours – see Kinman and Jones (2004)
  • job insecurity
  • lack of job control – due to the growing influence of the state in higher education, the pressure to deliver vocational and utilitarian courses and the demands of stakeholders such as students, sponsors, private funding agencies and government driven research policies
  • lower levels of perceived commitment by employers to employees and reduced loyalty of employees to their employer
  • difficulties in balancing work and home life
  • the overburden of increased bureaucracy
  • poor communication or consultation about policy and practice changes
  • problems with colleagues not pulling their weight
  • demands for increased productivity unmatched by corresponding increased pay

These consequences are not unique to legal academics. It is now increasingly evident that work related stress among academics is on the rise. Indeed it has been suggested that around 50% of academics are experiencing some form of psychological distress. Baron (2000:148) indicated that pay has in fact worsened compared to comparative sectors.

Among the adverse consequences of work related stress are:

  • low personal and professional morale
  • poor performances in research and teaching
  • sickness and absenteeism, early retirement or down grading, departure from academia

Low personal and professional morale

A report published by the Association of University Teachers in 2004 indicates that three quarters of those surveyed felt that there had been a decline in status for academic staff in the past five years and a high percentage (47%) indicated that they had considered leaving higher education. A similar survey of 782 academics – mostly drawn from the older universities – by Kinman and Jones in 2000 indicated that 44% of the sample had considered leaving. 59 per cent of respondents in the Kinman and Jones report felt that they had had to compromise their personal standards of performance to try to manage increase workloads and found it increasingly difficult to maintain a balance between teaching, research and administration.

It is also the case that the shift in focus from teaching to research has resulted in teaching being given an inferior status, with the consequence that those who experience teaching as a vocation may feel undervalued. (Baron (2000) suggests that commitment to teaching and satisfaction derived from this acts as a counterbalance to the negative effects of increased bureaucracy, inadequate time to keep abreast of legal developments, larger class sizes and longer working hours. If the value of this form of satisfaction is demeaned then it may well be that many good academics will be lost.) Although the government is trying to address this both through QAA and special awards for excellence in teaching, the current mindset is that teaching institutions and teaching academics are inferior to research institutions and research academics. Researchers are also not immune to low morale, particularly as the demands of the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) may mean abandoning research which interests them in favour of research with is RAE compatible, while competition to publish in a narrow range of ‘approved’ journals may well result in rejection.

While the current picture shows a marked change from findings undertaken in 1969 when as many as a third of those surveyed expressed high job satisfaction (Williams and Blackstone 1974:327) there is still some evidence to suggest that commitment of academic staff remains remarkably buoyant (Fulton 1996:393, and Lacy and Sheehan 1997:305). Whether morale and motivation is as high as that found in a Carnegie Foundation Survey in 1992 is questionable, 52% of the Kinman and Jones survey indicated that job satisfaction was diminishing.

Poor performance in research and teaching

Research on occupational stress carried out by at the University of Plymouth among 3,800 academics at 14 different institutions found a correlation between high stress levels and low scores in the RAE and QAA (Baty 2004). However, it would seem that high levels of work related stress are not limited to those universities at the lower end of the RAE scale. Cambridge, for example, has reported a rise of 60% in staff seeking counselling since introducing the service in 2000 (Sapsted 2004), and Tytherleigh and Cooper (2003) found that in the old universities there were higher levels of stress owing to life-work imbalance and job insecurity than in the newer universities, although the latter suffered from the greatest work related stress overall. 90 per cent of the respondents in the Kinman and Jones survey came from the older universities where one might expect to find fewer obstacles to research, but 67% of these indicated that they had insufficient opportunity and lacked the necessary support for conducting high quality research.

National responses

In Britain, people on average work longer hours than elsewhere in Europe – this is despite the Working Time Directive which was implemented in 1988. (More generally see Cownie 2004.) The government is not totally unaware of the consequential problems and some initiatives have been launched. For example, in 2000 government funded research was carried out to support the campaign for work-life balance (Work-life Balance 2000). In the same year the government announced additional spending of £330 million pounds over three years to improve the management of human resources within higher education and launched an initiative entitled Rewarding and developing staff in higher education. In 2001 the Higher Education Funding Council of England (HEFCE) funded the University of Plymouth to undertake a three year nationwide survey of occupational stress in UK higher education institutions with the aim of provided stress benchmarks. In 2002 10,090 questionnaires were sent out to a random sample of all categories of employees working in 14 UK higher education institutions, and key findings have now been published. (See Tytherleigh and Cooper 2003. Among these findings are that academic (non-clinical) staff reported the highest levels of stress and the lowest levels of commitment form their organisation – along with technical employees) and the highest levels of psychological ill health symptoms.)

There have also been some changes in legislation. For example, under amendments to employment legislation implemented in 2003, parents with children under six or with disabled children have the right to request flexible working hours and maternity leave entitlements have been extended. Provisions relating to discrimination, disability and harassment have also been enlarged over the past two decades, and the 1998 Human Rights Act may offer some assistance in encouraging employers to adopt family friendly policies. In some respects things have improved in the workplace.

Institutional responses

Those of us who joined academia before it became more humane may have faced the dilemmas of what to do when a school rang to say a child is sick and we must come home five minutes before a lecture; how to handle professional jealousy; what to do about sexual harassment from a student; how to juggle a family funeral with end of term marking and an exam board meeting. In my first year of teaching in the UK in 1985, I was timetabled to teach full time students until 4pm and then part time students from 6pm to 9pm on the same day. In the interval I had to collect my son from pre-school, take him home and give him a meal, hope the childminder turned up on time and drive back to the university – about 30-40 minutes away if the traffic was not too bad. Naively perhaps, it did not occur to me to challenge my timetable and I had no idea who to consult. I had only just got the job. I did not want to jeopardise it.

Fortunately there have been changes. For a start a new appointee is likely to have a mentor – although how effective this is may be very variable – and hopefully will have been given the chance to discuss teaching hours and any concerns related to these. The flexibility of working hours may have been considered – although flexibility in working hours in academia does not necessarily mean shorter or even more reasonable hours. (One of the problems with the ‘flexibility’ of academic work is that it is open-ended or infinite and may be more apparent than real especially when staff are being encouraged to deliver courses across a variety of modes and as well as contribute to the RAE and get the administrative load cleared.)

Universities, along with other employers, have been encouraged to adopt family friendly policies and practices. It is now generally acceptable that lecturers may have children – indeed these may now even appear in the hallowed corridors of universities (as long as they are seen and not heard). Tolerance and understanding will invariably depend very much on immediate colleagues and line managers, but on this aspect of the job I think things have improved.

However, the broader practical institutional response to the changes and consequences outlined above have been variable. A random search of university websites revealed that while most contain statements about health and safety at work, the value of human resources and the dedication of the institution to standards of excellence, along with explicit policies on disability, sexual harassment and discrimination, very few have clear statements of how the university addresses factors which might be directly relevant to work experience stress, such as approaches to job sharing, patterns of acceptable flexitime, physical resources for staff, the realities of availability of childcare provision, transport provision, career development structures or procedures for taking annual or study leave. At most a number of services may be advertised including the availability of a counselling service – for students and staff. Further investigation often suggests that this is woefully understaffed given the increase in student numbers and the types of financial and other pressures faced by students, let alone those being experience by staff.

Universities have obligations under health and safety legislation and related regulations to ensure health and safety in the workplace and to minimise risk (Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999). Arguably health includes mental and psychological health as well as physical health and therefore includes, as part of a healthy and safe working environment, the implementation of measures to assess risk and reduce stress. The Association of University Teachers has drafted an Agreement on occupational stress management is available to universities to adopt. However, few universities appear to have articulated a policy specifically dealing with work-related stress. Cambridge is an exception, and has a stated Policy on stress at work which other universities could do well to emulate.

Until there is greater institutional response to work cultures, practices and problems which have an adverse impact on the work environment much depends on the departmental or section response and on the attitude of individual line managers, departmental heads and indeed colleagues. Unfortunately the pressures of managing departments along the lines of factory production units may mean that those in senior posts have little time or inclination to pause and reflect on the human cost.

There must be many of us who are acquainted with colleagues who only come in at hours when they will not meet anyone; colleagues who communicate almost entirely with students by electronic means even when those students are on site; colleagues who have suffered nervous breakdowns as a result of putting themselves under huge research pressure, trying to meet publishers deadlines or reacting to negative referees’ comments; colleagues about whom we know virtually nothing and whom we are unable to help when a major catastrophe affects their lives; colleagues who have become virtual recluses behind the closed doors of their offices.

It may be that individuals such as these can be found in any working environment and that in this respect academia is no different from other forms of employment. I would argue that it is different because academics are, to a considerable extent, self motivated. Although there are measures in place which operate objectively, such as performance evaluation, teaching and course assessment by students, and research review procedures, essentially time and task management, the output of research, career development with an aim to promotion, the balancing of teaching, research and administration, competitive bidding for funding, the design of new courses or the updating of old ones, is, at the end of the day, up to the individual. We drive ourselves. Stress is therefore intrinsic to the job. There is perhaps more room for eccentricity and individualism than in other careers. There is also, I would suggest, more room for isolation and loneliness. In particular I would suggest that where intrinsic stress is combined with external stresses and pressures there is potentially a problem.

Most universities have procedures in place to assist new recruits to academia, for example mentoring, induction programmes, teaching evaluation, peer review, encouragement to undertake teaching qualifications or other job related skills enhancement. Although it is often not enough or comes at the wrong time, it is at least better than leaving new appointees entirely unassisted. (There is interesting research by Staniforth and Harland (2003:79) which suggests that recently appointed academics may well need more than the type of induction and support structures which are currently offered to them.) However, I would suggest that senior management in law schools needs to formulate and implement proper support policies for all members of staff, whether they are probationers, mid-career or nearing retirement. (Indeed the mean age of the 782 academics surveyed by Kinman and Jones was 47, suggesting that mid-career academics need to be kept in the equation.)

Some of the factors which contribute to this have been touched upon already. Increasing pressure to produce publications for the RAE in a discipline which is generally not laboratory or group based requires considerable focus and dedication of time, often at the expense of attending meetings, socialising, taking lunch or coffee breaks or enjoying weekends or full leave entitlement. Increased tutorial class sizes has meant that where tutorials may have been held in offices they are now held in classrooms, while reduction in time for pastoral care, greater delivery by Blackboard or other IT programmes and the centralisation of library, computer, printing and other services has reduced the need for students to come to staff or departmental offices. The introduction of IT into every office and the use of intra and internet reduces the need to visit the library or make face to face contact with other staff – even if they are just down the corridor. The superior status attributed to research over teaching may mean that less time is devoted to face to face teaching and more to online teaching or student led/centred teaching and assessment.

Closed doors or cages?

One of the items mentioned in the Cambridge policy on stress at work is the harm caused by working in a “poor physical environment”. Research undertaken for this paper revealed virtually no consideration of the physical environment within which legal academics work. It may well be that such studies exist, and certainly there must be studies on the impact of the built environment on working conditions, productivity and so on. The physical environment of law departments varies considerably. Some lecturers may be crammed two or three or more into a room, others may be perched in lofts and others accommodated in spacious, though perhaps chilly, private rooms. What effect does this have on us? While open plan offices may not be popular in law schools, long corridors of closed doors have their own problems. How many of us may go several days without seeing all or some of our colleagues, except perhaps in passing in the corridor? How many of us look out onto concrete walls, asphalt roof tops, the parking lot?

I have worked in four physically very different locations. Two I enjoyed very much, one I did not, and one had both advantages and disadvantages. My own view is that the physical environment had a considerable impact on my overall experience.

The first was in a square, modern building located in a large area of grass and trees which had formerly been a golf course. The offices all looked out over the grounds, and had doors opening onto a central communal area with coffee lounge and staff library. All staff had their own offices. Tea and coffee were available twice a day in the coffee lounge and most staff met there at least once each day or at least emerged from their offices long enough to grab a cup and a quick word. This meant that new staff and visitors to the university were quickly assimilated, work related and other matters could be discussed and missing staff accounted for. There was considerable awareness of what conferences were being attended, who was sick, what new initiatives were being considered and what research interests were currently being pursued.

The second was a modern building where I changed offices several times. Only senior management had small offices to themselves, most of us shared with one or, more often, two others. At no time did I enjoy an outlook other than walls, asphalt roofs, air conditioning units or concrete yards. The coffee room was never used as such, as it was far too small for the large body of staff, who simply came and went to collect their post from the pigeon holes located in the same room. There was virtually no effort made to facilitate the meeting of staff informally either in large or small groups by senior management and during a period of over 13 years I can only recall two occasions when this was done – a Christmas party organised by the administrative staff and an ‘away’ training day for the department. Staff offices opened onto student thoroughfares and so doors were kept closed. Communication, such as it was, was increasingly by e-mail, and there was considerable secrecy regarding proposed changes and developments or university politics which impacted on the department and a large degree of ignorance about fellow colleagues’ areas of research or interest.

At the third location staff offices were all on ground level in single storey buildings linked by a corridor. The buildings were located in well maintained grounds of lawns, shrubs and trees. Each member of staff had his or her own office which had windows on two sides and invariably doors were left open. There was a staff common room used by staff from a number of different disciplines and most staff met for coffee or tea twice a day. As a great number of students lived on the campus most staff also attended student campus functions. The open plan design of the campus meant that staff were aware of most of the comings and goings of others and there was a considerable amount of ‘doorway’ discussion, debates and good natured banter. The teaching rooms were located in a different wing and so students had no need to go past the offices except to see staff.

The fourth was an old building in which staff were scattered over parallel corridors on two floors. Each member of staff had his or her own office. There was a common room which doubled as a teaching room or seminar room for time to time and some staff took their lunches to eat in it or made tea there. More often some staff would convene in the university cafeteria close by for morning coffee or tea, and there were tea or coffee making facilities in the main administrative office where the pigeon holes were also located. This meant that the departmental staff were well aware of the comings and goings of academic staff and therefore able to assist students and colleagues in facilitating contact. All staff had offices with large windows to the exterior, although not all offices had views. My office had half a view, the other half being blocked by a wall. Most offices were located away from the student thoroughfares but doors were kept shut. It was therefore possible to pass several days without seeing any colleagues and weeks without seeing certain colleagues.

I mention these physical environments because I think they were influential in shaping my academic experience at these various universities. In particular, they determined my interaction with colleagues and therefore the department I was located in and by extension my relationship with the university. Of course other factors such as health, home concerns, teaching loads and so on were also relevant, but for a full time academic these aspects are often closely interconnected. While increased demands on us mean that we have to make the most of our working day, productivity is not solely linked to long hours. I believe we also need human interaction at a variety of levels. The shift to e-learning, computer assisted research and electronic communication with colleagues both within and outwith the university reduces the need to actually talk to anyone. We can deliver our lectures on the intra or internet, we can counsel students by e-mail. With the reduction in departmental assistance we have become self administering units, doing our own correspondence, printing, photocopying and form filling. Apart from retrieving our post, printing or photocopying there may be no need for us to leave the sanctuary of our office. There is a danger that the more we beaver away behind closed doors the more isolated we become. (An example of the type of changes which have taken place is found in Williamson and Harvey 1998.

Given that many of us spend a considerable amount of our time in our offices perhaps too little attention is paid to our working space by planners, architects and university authorities, who may create beautiful lecture theatres and atriums but are not too concerned about where the staff are going to be squeezed in. Perhaps we need to pause to consider whether we consider our working space as a refuge or a prison? Why do we keep our doors shut or open? What is the nature of our experience of working in these buildings? There is scope for both quantitative and qualitative research here.

If academics are going to be increasingly deprived of human contact in the course of their work then this needs to be redressed by ensuring that individuals do not become isolated, that the places where they work are designed to be positively beneficial and that there are opportunities, contrived if necessary, besides staff meetings, where they can come into contact with each other. There are of course numerous ways of doing this both within the institution, such as staff seminars, social outings and collaborative research, and outside it, such as conference attendance, external examining, committee or commission work. A balance needs to be struck between compelling people to emerge from their offices to participate in group activities and making all such participation voluntary. The value of academic individual autonomy needs to be balanced with institutional structures which enable personal choices to be freely made to the benefit of the individual and the institution.


As the next RAE looms up and top-up fees are introduced with the likely consequence that student demands will be ever more consumer orientated, pressures on academic staff are likely to increase. Unless institutions can be rapidly persuaded that practical and not just policy measures need to be put in place to address some of the problems of the academic workplace the burden must fall on senior staff, line managers and departmental heads – who themselves are likely to be under increasing pressure to comply with QAA, RAE, audit, Bar Council and Law Society demands, not forgetting funding applications, staff evaluation and appraisal, committee work and possibly a bit of teaching. So what can be done?

Staff-load matrixes should be employed to provide transparency, to ensure horizontal parity across staff and to identify potential problems of overload. Often, especially in large departments, teaching allocation, timetabling, the sharing out of administrative tasks and research activity is coordinated by different members of staff. Structures and practices which encourage or permit overloads to go unchecked should be addressed. While staff appraisal should eveal potential crises these may not be held often enough or may not be well administered or properly acted on. Other safety nets are required.

The culture of long working hours, no lunch breaks, no coffee breaks and the expectation that work is taken home needs to be addressed. A NATFHE study in 2003 found that 66% of staff in education worked more than 40 hours a week and some 40% of academic staff in higher education worked a minimum of 51 hours a week. More than half of higher education academics worked at least 11 hours out-of-office a week. 37% of staff had not taken sick leave when entitled to do so or had returned to work while still sick and over half did not take their full annual leave entitlement (Tytherleigh and Cooper 2003:16). Fenton (2003) stated that the average academic works 55-60 hours a week and that in particular women academics work longer hours than male counterparts to maintain research output – and still on average earn 18% less than men in academia. This may require closer consideration of time/task management, the nature of the work being undertaken, the availability or lack thereof of facilities for taking breaks and the possibilities of reducing tasks or streamlining systems. For example, with the shift to modularisation and in many cases semestererisation there may be staff who have not adjusted their course content and assessment sufficiently to fit new patterns. In such cases it may be helpful to have some form of peer review of courses in place, or a forum in which coping strategies can be discussed and exchanged. It may also help to have support networks beyond the department or institution in which practical experiences can be compared and advice exchanged, anonymously if preferred.

It should be recognised and accepted that everyone has a life outside work and that they should not have to feel guilty about this. While there may be reluctance to pry into the private lives of individuals more could be done to establish if there are needs which are not being met and which the department could assist in. For example, at appointment interviews in my experience few questions are asked about the family commitments of interviewees. When asked if there is anything the candidate wishes to raise it should be made clear that the employer seeks the information so as to be able to structure the job in such a way as to assist in maintaining a work-life balance, not in order to find grounds to reject a candidate because they have an aged parent to look after, a young child who has to be collected at 4.30 from a childminder, or a concert performance to rehearse for.

Work related stress should come out of the closet. Too often staff at all levels are reluctant to admit that they are stressed or that they cannot cope, or fear that they cannot cope. The belief may still be prevalent that stress related problems are symptomatic of weakness, incompetence or laziness, yet some of the most hard working, efficient and productive members of staff may succumb to stress. Stereotyping needs to be overcome and the stigma of stress removed. Probationers may be reluctant to admit to stress because they fear jeopardising confirmation of their appointment and therefore often take on too much too soon. Their enthusiasm and willingness is vulnerable to exploitation by more senior members of staff who might invite them to give a ‘guest lecture’ or be involved in research which is behind schedule “but vital for the RAE and excellent for the CV”. More senior members of staff may feel that being overloaded is ‘part of the job’, and necessary for promotion, or even to avoid being made redundant. Short term contract staff may feel it is essential for their track record to secure a future contract. While some stress is good as a motivator and may enhance productive team work and individual output, there is a danger that capitalising on the goodwill, efficiency of some staff and not addressing the inefficiency or manipulativeness of others has negative consequences. All academics need to be able to say no. To do this it may be necessary to have in place simple mechanisms such as a requirement for requests to undertake additional teaching to be vetted, or for probationers to keep work diaries to review with their mentors.

Finally I would suggest that each of us can make a difference to the experience of being an academic in today’s universities in small ways which I myself have found make a difference:

  • greet people – in the passage, through their office doorways, on the way to the parking lot. Say “good night” or “have a good weekend” when you leave.
  • leave your office door open from time to time so that your colleagues can see you are still alive and can exchange words with you
  • don’t always send an e-mail, use the phone or better still call at their office
  • make an effort to have a coffee or sandwich with a colleague, involve new members of staff, part timers and junior researchers. Chat about things outside work; hobbies, children, pets, holidays.
  • finally, if you are feeling stressed, overworked, under-valued or generally put upon, don’t suffer in silence. It may be noble but it is not very therapeutic. While I am not advocating a culture of grumblers, academics in the UK are notoriously acquiescent to the accumulation of changes affecting their working lives. (Cownie (2004) suggests that legal academics are particularly badly equipped to engage in critical self examination when it comes to looking at life-work balance, 2004.) Perhaps it is time to speak out. Academics are people not machines, but they are not superhuman, only human.



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About the Author

Sue is a Senior Lecturer in Law in the Department of Law, University of Dundee, teaching English Property Law, Equity & Trusts and Legal Research Methodology. Formerly and variously she has been an Associate Professor of Law at the University of the South Pacific, based in Vanuatu, a Principal Lecturer at the University of the West of England, a lecturer at the University of Natal in Vanuatu and a visiting lecturer in Fiji, France, Malaysia and Singapore.
Sue has taught most subjects across the undergraduate curriculum during her academic career. Her research interests include comparative law, human rights, property and social change and development, and family law, and her publications include books and articles in a number of these fields.

Last Modified: 12 July 2010