Sunday, August 10, 2014

Day 33 - Workload (part 3)

Now we come to the hardest part of the workload, which is also the most controversial.
I think that the allocation of a specific budget of time to a specific research project kind of cuts against the grain, especially in the humanities, and perhaps most so in the creative arts. I've been writing music for almost all my life, but if I was to estimate how long it's going to take me to write this piece I have on my desk right now, I would struggle.

I've been doing some reading about managing the creative arts but haven't come to any conclusions yet. I think that it's worth chipping away at, because it enables us to put our research activities on a more professional basis, and I refuse to entertain the idea that could be a bad thing!

The typical research allocation for an academic at my institution is 130 units per year. That works out as 10% of the workload, and therefore around half a day a week (3 hours 30 minutes), but the actual allocation of this research time is problematic. Line managers don't always allocate this, and it we've been told that it is not a guaranteed allowance. My philosophy is that if we allocate specific projects with specific durations and outputs, rather than just assuming that we have half a day per week to do open ended research, we're more likely to be productive and more likely to get allocated the time.

We get an allocation (negotiated with line manager of course) for roles such as Research Centre Director, and I'm given 130 units for this (so 10% of my time again). I believe this is pretty much normal for my institution.

PhD supervision is allocated as 195 units per student across their entire study time (3 years for full-time students, 5 years for part-time students). This works out as 65 units per year for F/T PhD students, and 39 hours per year for P/T PhD students (around 105 minutes per week for F/T, and around 63 minutes per week for P/T).

On top of this there is funded research as well, and knowledge transfer, and commercial activity.
This is a bit of a hot topic in my institution at the moment, as the difference between these different areas is masked by them being lumped into one category and leads to (quite often) an undignified scuffle over how research budgets are divided. For a time, my institution regarded research as being an area that it didn't want to invest too heavily, focusing instead on industry engagement through KT and on money-making commercial activity.

KT (engagement with industry) is a difficult area for me. My specific research is problematic for any money-making venture, but also I'm not sure how I feel about how the relationship between academia and industry can be negotiated. I've recently been in discussions about establishing a KT partnership with a commercial partnership (a concert hall), but this wouldn't be an area that I'm really engaged with, and I would really only be steering the partnership. I suspect I will have more to say on the subject on the future.

Commercial activity consists, for us, mainly in our summer school activities. We currently run three summer schools, only one of which is run by our institution; the other two are run by other agencies and only use our building. This does mean that we have a steady income every year, and this has been really helpful for our research activities, and much more helpful (financially) than the REG (Research Excellence Grant), which is top-sliced to such an extent that we don't get a large amount of it. After the upcoming REF (Research Excellence Framework) assessment exercise, we will probably have even less (because my institution did not contribute in my field... a story for another day!), so this is a fantastic financial resource.

Sensibly, commercial activity workload allocation is divided into Commercial Support, which I believe would include the administration of these projects (being a Principal Investigator), and Commercial Delivery, which would involve the actual activity itself.
This division into administration and delivery enables (again) line managers to assign appropriate workloads, and should counter the standard approach of assuming that administration time is invisible in projects such as this.

There's a big responsibility on the shoulders of managers to understand and implement these allocations, and the relationship between top-down and bottom-up management of these allocations is a tricky one.
I'll have cause to talk about the difference between top-down and bottom-up management another day, but for the time being, I'll just say that the difference is primarily whether you manage allocations from the perspective of looking at the entire academic team as a potential resource amongst whom you can divide various responsibilities, or looking at individuals and managing them as such. My own perspective is that you have to start off with a top-down approach, but customise it to be bottom-up later in the process. Both perspectives have to be maintained simultaneously, rather like those Magic Eye pictures.

It's not easy, but I think it's worth the effort.

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