Focus your anger and… demand better in your own space.

Thinking overnight about yesterday’s back’n’forth with @thesiswhisperer and whether I can give a good example of where our exploitation is a problem of our making and not easily blamed away… I can, so here it is.

A common complaint in academia is workloads. The blame is often attributed to the government (not enough money), the unions (not doing enough), senior management (aiming to exploit), but it can be amusing to watch how little academics below senior management actually do on this.

Last year I read a lot of university EAs for a blog post on salaries in academia, particularly at the top end (see here). There was an interesting section in one of the EAs…

“A workload formula will be in place in each unit, developed through a collegial process, generally supported by employees in the unit, and provide for the equitable and transparent allocation of workload within the unit.” It continues…

“The formula will be developed in a way that identifies a transparent correlation between the measure applied and the hours of work generated by each relevant academic activity” It then specifies all the aspects including teaching and admin.

I’ll spare it all, but two last relevant details: a) “The formula must contain a quantifiable maximum on required workload measured in hours and a quantifiable maximum on teaching contact hours.”; b) “The allocation of teaching contact hours will be consistent with the formula”.

At this point, clearly some admixture of the union and senior management have done their job properly — there is a requirement for a transparent and quantifiable workload allocation. And the government? Well, it really has no important role at this level.

One might expect every unit has such a scheme, right? Do they? Of course not! Some would say senior management is to blame if this isn’t the case, and perhaps there is an oversight failure there. But really, the failure is at the unit level.

Ultimate responsibility lies with the head of the unit. Have they not read the EA? Are they unaware that the Fair Work Commission could come after them for violating the EA? Or is it that not having this benefits them as they can preferentially award work to suit other agendas?

What about the staff in the unit, who should now be pressing their unit head about why a key legal condition of the EA is not being implemented? Some won’t speak up for fear of reprisals, same reason many would consider me writing this to be madness and asking for trouble.

Others do, and I know of an amusing instance where an attempt was made to take it up the ED&I chain, since that can feasibly bypass a head of unit if it wants/needs to. It is a fair ED&I issue because lack of such a scheme usually punishes junior or minority members in a unit.

The response, from ED&I rep to fellow academic, was ‘this is just how the system works, so just get used to playing it as it is’. Impressive ED&I leadership right there, hey! Some might snort ‘male Prof ED&I rep I bet’, nope, female & not prof. and a self-nominee to the role.

It’s interesting to think on why an ED&I rep would say such a thing? Do they benefit from the lack of a transparent system somehow? Is it the lack of action accountability in the ED&I system that means the value ratio of hot air or smoke & mirrors to real action is high? Fear?

After all, it’s not only one unit that’s a standout in lacking a workload scheme that meets the EA, there are many. How could middle-management level EA committees be so blind, silent or inactive on this? How could middle- and senior-management be in a similar position?

This is why I always find it amusing to watch academics blame the government, or unions, or society, anyone but themselves really, for various woes when many aspects of those woes can be fixed by good gutsy grassroots leadership action down at their own level.

Particularly when, having a solid quantitative, transparent, open workload model, you can then argue from a strong numerical standpoint about why and by how much the workload situation is unsustainable and in need of additional resourcing. Words are nice, numbers are power.

So as much as I’m all for ‘Focus your anger and vote accordingly’ as @thesiswhisperer suggests, you also cannot ignore the power of grassroots action. Academics have more power than they think, and to quote @midnightoilband ‘It’s better to die on your feet than live on your knees.

PS. This is not a gripe on my own management chain, as I’m in a unit that actually has a quantitative workload formula at unit level. It mightn’t be perfect, but at least it exists, and we continue to work to improve least it exists.

But if you want these things, you have to fight for them. Start by making good trouble actually flow upwards because sadly, voting is designed by and for the people at the top to achieve change only if it benefits those already at the top. Good trouble is more powerful as a tool.

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