Friday, August 08, 2014

Day 31 - Workload (part 1)

A while ago, I said I was going to talk about how my institution calculates workloads, what that means for me, and reflections on the whole business of managing workloads.
The disappearance of my internet, and the generation of a buffer of posts to cover me until Monday seemed like a good time to actually get to grips with it, so here goes.

I am contracted to work 35 hours a week, so approximately 7 hours a day, 5 days a week.
I have 46 days of holiday every year, the timing of 14 of which are non-negotiable (public holidays, Christmas vacation, etc.).
Looking at September 1st 2014 to August 31st 2015, there are 52 full working weeks and an extra Monday. In total, that comes to 261 working days.
Less my 46 days holiday, that comes to 215 working days.
Given a 7 hour working day, that comes to 1505 working hours.

We are each assigned 1300 work units for each academic year. I have no idea where this number comes from, but it is quite clear that a unit does not equal an hour. Except it's sort of assumed that it is.
In fact it's around 69 minutes and 28 seconds.

The workload allocation model is divided into four areas: Teaching, Research, Commercial or Other, and Support.
I'll talk about teaching tonight and tomorrow, research and commercial on Sunday, and support on Monday.
On Tuesday I'll try to draw everything together and shout at it.

So. As mentioned above, each unit counts for around 69 minutes and 28 seconds of my working life.

I'm going to deal with different types of teaching first of all, and go through what they actually entail:
  • Lectures: 1 unit per taught hour, with another unit for each taught hour to cover preparation/support
  • Seminars/tutorials: 1 unit per taught hour, but the preparation time per taught hour decreases depending on how many of these seminars or tutorials you actually take
  • Honours year projects (such as dissertations):  Here the allocation is calculated as including teaching, preparation and assessment, and falls into one of four bands. There is not very clear criteria of how to interpret these bands (and that which is given is irritatingly science-based), leaving it worryingly open to abuse. Our dissertation module includes 12 hours of supervision across the year (half-an-hour a week if distributed evenly), while another similar module on a different programme might involve only 3 hours of supervision across the year. Looking at the guidelines, they are regarded as being equivalent.
Then we look at assessment. Basically, for each student taking 20 credits, there is one unit. This means that if you are marking essays for 30 students, which is 50% of the mark weighting, you're probably going to get 15 units for your trouble (around 35 minutes per script). That doesn't seem too bad, but remember how much time you spend messing around with a marking grid, refamiliarising yourself with the topic and the specific question. Having worked that out, if you have any moderation involved, you should really be allowing some for the moderator, so you have to take that out of the allowance for each student.
Again, reflect that some modules may involve multiple forms of assessment, and may involve blind double-marking. You won't necessarily get an allocation for the time it takes you to mark.

Let's assume for a minute that we are going to be cynical about this.
Let's look at what the allocations actually mean for us as lecturers.
Importantly, for me, I can see that fewer assessments in a module will give me less work for my time. Although the calculation is apparently fair, it takes time to change gear between assessment types. One can get 'into the flow' of marking essays (as well as hitting a wall!) that will be interrupted if we also have to mark harmony exercises.
Any module that involves double-blind marking is inefficient since you are basically doing twice as much for no more time allowance.
Also, taking seminars and tutorials will not get you as much time allowance as teaching lectures. Now, I believe that the equation for working out preparation time for seminars/tutorials is generally a sensible one, but the consequence of this is that I get more allocation from teaching lectures.
The final observation to make is that if I don't change my teaching, I still get the allocation for preparation without having to actually do it.

What this means is that, according to this system:
  • traditional lecture-based modules are more cost-effective than any other more interactive formats;
  • it is not cost-effective to change your lectures from year to year;
  • traditional essay-based assessment is more cost-effective than any other more interactive formats.
That's pretty depressing.

Let's just go back to dissertations for a second. Let's say you convince your line manager to regard the dissertation as a 'Band 2' project, which carries with it an exciting 10 unit per student weight.
You spend 12 hours across the year supervising their project, for which you will probably do some independent research on the topic yourself in order to help them on their way. You will probably mark drafts of the work, giving feedback as the year goes on. Then you will mark the thing (ours are 11,000 words and are blind double-marked). If this was a lecture-based course, you'd already be on around 25 units per student.
It's likely that we should revisit the amount of supervision our dissertation students receive, obviously!

What is clear to me, is that these things are never discussed when it comes to discussing module design. Actually, nothing is really ever discussed when it comes to module design, but that's a rant for another day. It also isn't discussed when it comes to the PGCert for teaching in HE, but it's a reality of managing staff, managing a programme, and managing one's own workload. Why is this?

I have a depressingly easy answer to that one. Nobody really understands these numbers. Academic managers (and I mean heads of department or similar here) are in the position that they are in because they published a couple of books, or have been around the block a few times, or made the mistake of catching someone's eye in a meeting when they should have been looking at their feet, not because they're skilled at admin. Some are (thankfully) but (in my experience at least) most aren't. Calculations like I have been discussing today scare many academics because they aren't (except when they are) accountants. They are musicologists and pianists and experts in literature.

The other problem is that induction programmes and PGCert programmes are not designed to train you for the realities of teaching. They are idealistic in their outlook. Which is all very well, but it's a bit like teaching a child that the world is a wonderful place full of welcoming and innocent people and then dropping them in the centre of town.

I've talked about cost-effectiveness, but how much does an hour of an academic's time cost? For anyone on my salary point (so basically anyone who is a non-probationary lecturer), the price including estates and indirect costs, is £56 per hour. That is the Full Economic Cost of my time - how much I cost the university to work for an hour.

Finally, I want to come back to this idea that we have 1300 units, but work 1505 hours per year. If we regard the difference as being spread out across the year, it comes to around four hours and a quarter per week. How much time do you spend in staff meetings, or in other similar meetings? As we will see, there is little allocation for this sort of activity, so it's probably fair enough to start viewing a unit as equaling an hour.

Isn't it? This is probably one of those questions it's not wise to ask.

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