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Report on VU Academic Workloads by Sydney University Workplace Research Centre

Posted 15 February 2012 by Russel Baader (Victoria University)

Report on VU Academic Workloads by Sydney University Workplace Research Centre

Richard Gough, VU Branch President

During November 2011 over 100 academic staff from all schools took part in focus groups which discussed key aspects of academic workload allocation and the current model. Despite the obvious difference between Schools and Faculties a consistent series of themes emerged. This discussion highlights some major themes of the report. It does not attempt to do justice to all the issues raised. Copies of the report can be accessed below as well as the complementary report by Melbourne University on the interviews with Heads of School.

Undervaluing of Teaching and its Impact on Teaching Quality

A major theme was the undervaluing of teaching within the model. Under the previous model 14 hours teaching was seen as a full workload, but now a full-time teaching load is worth only 60% with 20% added for service to the university and scholarship of research and teaching. This leaves staff, who are not seen as research active, to find another 20% to have a full workload. More specifically:

  • Points allocation for unit co-ordination based on student numbers is seen not to capture the work involved, particularly in smaller units;
  • Many tasks involved in course co-ordination are not adequately recognised and the problem has been made worse by the increase in course sizes since the model was created;
  • The work involved in upgrading and improving units and courses is not adequately recognised;
  • Onerous reporting about courses to the central administration has grown in recent years;
  • The CAMS system is complex and time consuming to update.

Consistently throughout the report this undervaluing of teaching is seen as leading to a degrading of the quality of teaching, and lack of innovation with regard to teaching. This is despite the clearly expressed view of staff of wishing to provide quality teaching to students. Although not mentioned in the report, the recent poor results for VU in the Course Experience Questionnaire can in part be explained by the undervaluing of teaching.

A related theme that was repeatedly expressed was that staff involved in course co-ordination consider that their ability to publish and get research active status has been undermined. The running of courses and large units off-shore and in summer and winter on-shore between semesters has meant that co-ordination of courses and units becomes a 48 week a year activity with little time to do research. As a result such staff believe that their ability to obtain promotion has been badly affected and that they are at a career dead end.

Increasing administrative work placed on Academic Staff

Another major theme is that staff consistently reported that administration is taking up more and more of their time to the detriment of the core activities of teaching and research. Such work could be done in a more cost effective manner by properly trained administrative staff. The types of administrative work cited by staff includes:

  • Student selection. This is an area which is severely under-pointed in the current model;
  • Helping students fill out forms;
  • General course and unit co-ordination administration such as responses to standard emails, mail out of assignments, etc;
  • Administration of marking including putting up results of assignments on WebCT in large units;
  • WebCT activities;
  • Booking travel;
  • Marketing and public relations;
  • Enrolments and completions;
  • Course amendment forms;
  • Sessional contracts;
  • Uploading student evaluations.

Staff also commented on the lack of support and training for undertaking administrative duties, especially with regard to co-ordination. These problems also highlight the need for appropriate training for administrative staff to take on these duties.

Shortcomings of the Research Activity Index Measure
Another key theme highlighted by the report is the retrospective nature of recognition for research. This fails to recognise research currently being undertaken by staff who do not have or have lost their research status. As a result such staff attract extra non-research work to make up a full workload.

Since a large amount of research is now conducted in teams, and such collegial behaviour is encouraged by the ARC and the NHMRC, the partial recognition of research with multiple authors militates against research collaboration. The emphasis on outputs instead of recognitions of research processes, such as the time consuming activity of applications for grants, also discourages staff from applying and developing a research profile. The requirement of staff to double their research output as they move to a higher academic classification level was seen as a disincentive to seek promotion. The inability of the research recognition process to reflect creative work was also pointed out by some staff.

Concern was also raised by staff about the inadequacy of points allocated for higher degree supervision, especially with students with poor English skills and how this was acting as a disincentive to do such work.

Conclusion

Despite the attempt in the current model to transparently recognise all the aspects of academic work, it is apparent that the over 100 staff in the 20 focus groups have identified areas where the model is deficient. The views of staff were overwhelmingly supported by heads of schools.

The following comment from the report on the Workload model captures the problems identified by staff:

Factors undermining job satisfaction and motivation stem from growing work intensification, increasing administrative duties that ‘crowd out’ core academic tasks and a loss of local control and individual autonomy. Overall, it was felt that the model drove a punitive approach to work tasks and offered very little reward for work well preformed [sic]. In particular, participants highlight a lack of recognition for innovative teaching and research in the current workload model’. page 43

The views of staff about what needs to change in the workload model at VU is summed up in the following statement:

Analysis of the focus group data shows that staff require a more flexible approach (points-based or otherwise) to workload measurement and allocation. A more sophisticated system is needed to account for the development needs of academics at different stages in their career. In addition, professional development opportunities should not be seen as an opportunity only for some (staff who have earned enough points), or a means of control, but as genuinely supporting academics to acquire the skills and professional resources they need to be both active and innovative researchers and high quality teachers.’ page 43

Now that we have the report, and the complementary one from Melbourne University on the interviews with heads of schools, discussions are now beginning with management in the Workload Model Review Committee about how to improve the workload model. Expressions of interest are called for from members to be part of a reference group to assist us in the Committee’s work in getting better workload allocation at VU.

 

 

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