Friday, 21 September 2012

Academic employment contracts

I was going to continue the discussion of the last posting on disruptive innovation and how it might impinge on our universities - and I shall come back to that topic quite soon. But almost by accident, while in the Budapest Corvinus University yesterday, I found myself talking about - and then thinking about - academic employment contracts. These have evolved over time, naturally, but they remain in many ways surprisingly open ended and almost informal.

When I first became a professor at Heriot-Watt University, back in 1985, my contract then basically said that I was appointed to be a professor, that I was responsible to the Principal of the University (in other words, he was formally designated as my line manager), and that I would be head of the then economics department for an initial five year spell. There was also a little about holiday, sick-pay, rules about consultancy and outside earnings, and stuff like that. But I don't recall anything in the contract that gave any clues as to what exactly a professor was supposed to do. In those days, I think, the presumption was that if you had got as far as becoming a professor, you should have absorbed enough of the 'ethos' and 'culture' of academic life to know what to do, without needing anything in the way of instructions or explicit guidance. And actually, that presumption was probably broadly correct.

Thus my contract provided at most a very sketchy outline of my role, while informal understandings across the academic community, and my personal goals to develop my own research, provided plenty of motivation and direction to keep me busy and (hopefully) productive. Moreover, I knew for sure that the Principal was not remotely interested in being an active line manager. He was clearly happiest when I just got on with the job (as defined by me), and was more than content to have the very occasional chat over lunch or a coffee for a quick update on what I was doing. Back then, we had no research assessments to contend with, no teaching quality assessments, no individual staff appraisal with annual targets and performance reports. So from a 'modern' perspective, it probably all sounds almost shockingly informal.

Even our external activities, including consultancy, were handled with considerable informality. It was taken for granted that as a professor, I would do some external examining for other universities, referee journal articles, and things like that, and I still do much of this, despite being officially retired. These are mostly unpaid activities (OK, external examining is not unpaid, but the remuneration is derisory; no one would do it for the money!) that most academics do as a routine part of being an academic. It goes with the territory - but there's nothing in our contracts about it.

As for consultancy, my 'old contract', long ago superseded by more restrictive conditions, allowed me to work up to one day per week outside the University without any special permission. I hardly ever took advantage of that provision, and the first time I worked for the World Bank, in 1990, I did consult the Principal about the project. I found myself in the bizarre position of trying to convince him that we should ask for an overhead contribution for the University (we did ask, and we got one), and I thought he might want the University to take a share of the income I was going to earn. 'No, no', he said, indicating that it was good for the University's reputation and standing to be engaged with bodies like the World Bank. He insisted that I keep all the money (which was not a huge sum, it must be admitted).

So much for the informality of the past, which was nevertheless perfectly compatible with working hard and being a productive academic, delivering a good, supportive teaching service to our students, and doing interesting research.

Nowadays, though, universities have shifted strongly in the direction of being more managerial, partly for external reasons to do with accountability - to funders, to the general public, to our students, etc. And partly for internal reasons, an increasing trend towards surrounding all our activities with extensive paper trails (for audit and accountability reasons, and also to provide protective documentation in the event of appeals and lawsuits), and towards thinking that we can get the best out of staff by managing/supervising them more closely. The last point, in my view, is just mistaken, but it seems to be the prevailing approach now.

Our contracts are probably a bit more precisely specified than they used to be, though they remain remarkably open ended. But in the academic working environment they are everywhere supplemented by quite detailed management of most of what we do. I sometimes wonder what this does  to academic incentives to do different things. In particular, service to the wider academic community is not managed, not incentivised (to use a truly horrible modern word) at all, and I wonder whether the next generation of academics will simply take the view that it is no longer part of the academic job. Or shall we move to a position where these external, and largely unpaid activities have to be properly paid for - so instead of a notional fee of £100, say, for examining a PhD, one would have to be paid, shall we say, £1500?

I would personally feel rather sad if the academic community did move far in this direction, as I like the traditional cooperative ethos and find that over the years it has given me the broad framework I have needed to manage the different strands of my work reasonably well. And I suppose I also feel that if institutions want their academics to deliver good work, it's not very wise to be overly prescriptive regarding what they should be doing. The academic 'job' is too complicated and diverse to be pinned down like that.

1 comment:

  1. In this contract the employee has more benefits, where he can develop his career and even he can develop his research!!They have mentioned the advantages!!

    Sample Contracts