Working harder for less

B&W Milk 2

I realise this blog has been a bit whingy of late. This is my last whingy post, after this, sunshine and unicorns, I promise.

I was chatting with (okay, whinging to) a colleague the other day, bemoaning the fact that we all seem to be working much harder, for less impact in higher education. I now regularly work during evenings, weekends and holidays. I don’t recall doing that so often since the days when I was creating T171, our big elearning course, in 1999. Then I was doing that whole “get up at 3am to fix problems” thing, but it was a big deal, it led to the OU becoming an elearning university, 1000s of students and 1,000,000s of pounds. If ever that stuff is worth it, then it felt like this was a case. But now I’m doing near that just to get bids in for smaller amounts, to work on existing research projects, deliver to strategic initiatives, supervise PhD students, write papers, etc. All good stuff, but not life changing. Everything just requires more effort now, for less reward. Research is a good example – it is much more competitive to get a grant, the requirements of submitting a bid (both internally and by the funder) are much more time consuming now, the amounts you get are smaller, and the reporting requirements when you have it much more onerous.

And it occurred to me, mid-whinge, that this is true of every profession – teachers, nurses, doctors, social workers, journalists. All working much harder for less return – often that lower return is financial, but also just in terms of impact. Doing more for less, and doing it more often is the new mantra. In many ways academia has been protected from this trend to a greater extent than many others, so this is not a special plea for sympathy. Rather the question I keep asking, is “how did we get here?” Computers were meant to liberate us all from drudgery. I guess the big suspects are globalisation, neo-liberalism and technology. But even then I don’t think this state of affairs was inevitable. My candidate is post-2008 austerity. Not just in terms of finances, but psychologically and socially. Austerity made crisis the new normal. This created a culture of envy and mistrust. If you or your institution wasn’t operating at the very limits of breaking point then there was slack in the system. And slack was to be eradicated. This created continual downward pressure – in my privileged example, the Government creates pressure on funding bodies to show greater return and demonstrate maximum efficiency; the funding bodies pass this onto grantees in terms of bidding requirements; universities pass it down to PIs and they pass it down to research associates. There was insufficient pressure back up the chain, and each extra cut or requirement is not enough to trigger this.

That’s my simplistic view of how we got here. What I’m not sure then is how we get out of here, because for all of those professions and more, it doesn’t seem like a sustainable approach.

Now, onto unicorns. Just as soon as I’ve finished writing this bid…

9 Comments

  1. I don’t know what the answer is, but I suspect part of it is to keep us ‘plebs’ under control and not have too much free time to be particularly critical of the systems and cultures we live in.

    Plus, if everything is hyper-competitive and individualistic, we’re not going to be tempted to join in any of that pesky ‘collective action’.

    Just going to try and dig out my tin-foil hat…let me know when you’ve managed to find a way out! 😉

    1. Comrade! 🙂 Yes there probably is something about keeping us competitive – if you’re not happy to play the game there’s always someone who will

  2. I would suggest simply refusing to work outside contracted hours and roles, but that will only result in being accused of communism and failing to contribute. Those with their hands on the bank want to keep them there and will happily work everyone else to the bone to do so. Its a dog eat dog Thatcherite dream.

    1. This is a good example Mike – I _should_ say I won’t work weekends, but things like getting bids in means that researchers in my team will continue to have jobs. If I don’t a nd miss the bids, then they’re out of a job. That becomes difficult for me to take a principled stand when it impacts others more (see also PhD students). But you’re right, of we all stopped then there’d be more space.

  3. I think I see a space for unicorns in work package 5. Can you just add a full economic costing, justify your use of resources, identify and check with their line managers and check whether the excessive use of rainbows will have health and safety implications within a confined space?

  4. Are we not too biased towards impact? Winning the lottery with one bid? Is this not the reason why many get frustrated?
    Or is this what mankind drives and we celebrate if just one person we ‘know’ makes great impact.
    But perhaps, on a scale of decades / centuries, we are working less for more (workng hours a week keeps decreasing while wealth in general increases). And if we work less – we have less impact unless our efficiency increases stronger….

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