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Edict curtailing freedom to work at home 'appals' staff

Lecturers should be on campus for community and students, university says. Rebecca Attwood reports

Lecturers have reacted with dismay to a policy requiring them to spend the full 35 hours of the working week on campus unless they obtain formal permission to work off site.

The edict at Liverpool Hope University has been described by staff as a "shocking" example of micromanagement, an "insult" to their professionalism and an assault on the "autonomy of academic life".

But the university said it was "unashamed" about its ambition to be a real university community, not a "virtual" one, and that the policy aims to ensure that students are properly supported.

The move comes amid concern in some quarters about the influence students have over their tutors' working lives and the "consumer" attitudes promoted by tuition fees.

Frank Furedi, professor of sociology at the University of Kent, said that while academics had a responsibility to teach and help their students, the Liverpool Hope policy appeared to be an attempt to impose the model of the school on higher education. This was part of a trend that risked destroying the role of academics and discouraging students from independent thought, he said.

The Liverpool Hope document states that working from home should be an "exception to the norm and can be authorised only by a dean in each instance".

It adds that, where permission is granted, it is "imperative" that staff keep "a careful note of activity engaged in during such absences that, if required, they are able to discuss with an authorised line manager".

A record of where they are working helps to ensure that they are "engaging fully" with the university, the policy says.

A senior academic at the university said many staff felt the policy called into question their professionalism and academic integrity.

Members of the Liverpool Hope branch of the University and College Union have unanimously supported a motion stating that they would not recognise it.

"I am totally shocked by this micromanagement ... We are adults, we are capable of managing our time and responsibilities," one said.

"This is managerialism gone mad - private industry rejected this nonsense years ago," another said.

A third said academics were "appalled" at the tone of the paper, and a fourth said they felt "insulted by the implied mistrust".

The UCU's national office was also critical.

"The document appears to be arguing for a 'presence culture'," a spokesman said, arguing that it ignored the time lecturers spent on preparation and assessment via the internet.

The university said the policy clarified existing principles and ensured that students could contact their tutors face to face and would not feel isolated.

The document says that the university understands flexibility is "a necessary component" of academic life, and a spokesman said the 35 hours need not be 9 to 5.

Last week, the policy was amended to say that the rules would apply less strictly to staff with "recognised researcher" status.

Academics have typically enjoyed more flexible working patterns than their colleagues in administrative posts because of the nature of scholarly pursuit.

Clare Kelliher, senior lecturer in strategic human resource management at Cranfield School of Management, said the traditional view was that office environments were not always conducive to academic writing and thinking.

"In any professional job, people are assessed not on the amount of time they spend in the workplace but on what they achieve," she said.

At present there is little uniformity in the policies adopted by different universities.

The University of Westminster encourages "home working" and says it is "accepted and routine" for academic staff to do duties away from the university, while the University of Salford encourages staff to spend "a high proportion" of time on campus but says a degree of flexibility is "of mutual benefit to both staff and students".

rebecca.attwood@tsleducation.com

LECTURER WHO WOULD NOT WORK OUTSIDE SPECIFIED HOURS LOSES APPEAL

An academic who was fired for refusing to work on campus outside her specified lecture and student-contact hours has lost a tribunal case against Kingston University.

The judge in an Employment Appeal Tribunal case ruled that there was "copious evidence" justifying the sacking of Regina Benveniste, lecturer in mathematics at Kingston, in 2004.

The ruling said that Dr Benveniste "would only attend the university for her specific lectures and her scheduled student- contact hours (three hours a week). This caused considerable problems for her colleagues who had to cover for her," it said.

The tribunal heard that Dr Benveniste's actions had prompted a manager at Kingston to produced guidance stating that lecturers should work from home only one day a week and that further days would have to be agreed.

Campus unions raised no objection to the policy, but Dr Benveniste argued that this was a breach of contract and refused to comply.

She launched a County Court case against the university, which was dismissed, and when she subsequently failed to attend a disciplinary hearing she was sacked.

In 2007, Dr Benveniste sued Kingston for unfair dismissal, victimisation and breach of contract.

The employment tribunal dismissed all her claims, but allowed an appeal over her pension rights during the six-month notice period.

The Employment Appeal Tribunal judge described Dr Benveniste as an "experienced and enthusiastic litigant" who had brought numerous appeals on many aspects of the case.

"The amount of time that has been devoted to this case is wholly disproportionate to the amount at stake," he said.

melanie.newman@tsleducation.com.

Readers' comments (1)

  • Independently of what one thinks about the practice of home working among academic staff, the one issue that is significant about the treatment of Dr Benveniste by Kingston University is that it serves as an example of the tactics employed by University management in order to bully / harass academic staff. In this case the academic involved was singled out for disciplinary action and dismissal for home working, while others who worked as she did were not. The evidence clearly showed that there were no problems with Dr Benveniste’s homeworking and was common practice among her colleagues, both before and after her dismissal. In fact the rule restricting home working came into existence for the sole purpose of harassing Dr Benveniste, who had submitted to Kingston University a grievance for harassment against her line management as well as a suit at the ET. (See http://bulliedacademics.blogspot.com/2008/02/latest-news-about-kingston-university.html ) The 6/11/2008 survey by UCU (University and College Union) showed that almost 50% of those questioned said they experienced workplace bullying / harassment. Some universities have more serious bullying problems than others. According to the above survey, Kingston University is the second worst university in the UK for bullying its staff. (See http://www.ucu.org.uk/index.cfm?articleid=3595.)

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