Apprenticeships; only those from stable family homes need apply

Apprenticeships; only those from stable family homes need apply

 Susan Sayce, Norwich Business School, University of East Anglia:

Connor Green’s IPED student essay on apprenticeship and inclusion   confirms that apprenticeship schemes are a highly topical subject in the UK. The debate on apprenticeship schemes has been fuelled by political parties in the run-up to the general election of 2015. The Conservative party have promised to create 3 million new apprenticeship schemes, whilst the Labour party have promise 80,000 new apprenticeship schemes each year (Wintour, 2015).  Apprenticeships are seen as a key route into employment that connects with the requirement of young people to engage in education and training till they are 18.  Thus new apprenticeships still include traditional skill training and employment recognition but off-the job training offered by colleges and private providers, funding to contribute to off-the-job training costs and an industry wide framework based on NVQs

As the OECD points in its skills report apprenticeships are a good fit for young people who may have the qualifications for HE but who consider that HE is not for them, and for other young people who are less academic and want to learn technical skills while working. It also stresses the need for apprenticeships to be opened up to women and disadvantaged young people generally. This support for apprenticeships is good news for employers who remain committed to training and developing a new generation of young people with key technical skills, which is fundamental to good quality apprenticeships schemes. But the OECD also stress the importance of good governance to avoid young people being exploited as cheap labour, which may be a risk as apprentice routes are widened in the UK to include new industries and new sectors.

As apprenticeship schemes expand from their traditional heartlands of construction and manufacturing to include public services such as local government, finance and even estate agencies. There has been one area that has been politically contentious and that is the low level of minimum pay for apprentices, which is set by government. There has always been an element of cost sharing re training among employers and apprentices but there have been concerns about the low level of apprenticeship wages and the threat of exploitation.

For example the former business secretary Vince Cable has been particularly vocal in support for a rise in the apprentice national minimum wage (Horsley, 2015). Additionally trade unions have expressed concern at the level of apprenticeship pay which they label as exploitative (BBC, 2015). Trade unions bodies including the national union of stduents also express concern that apprentice schemes are not fully inclusive for young people due to the low level of pay (NUS, 2015). On the 17th March 2015 the UK coalition government announced a 20% increase in the apprenticeship national minimum wage which took effect in October 2015.

Minimum Wage Levels

Year 21and over 18 to20 Under 18 Apprentice*
2015 (current rate)     £6.70     £5.30        £3.87          £3.30
2014     £6.50     £5.13        £3.79          £2.73

*This rate is for apprentices aged 16 to 18 and those aged 19 or over who are in their first year. All other apprentices are entitled to the National Minimum Wage for their age. Https://

However, despite these rises Green (2015)  indicates that the OECD is right to highlight governance as an issue with apprenticeships.  A National Union of Students (2015) report states that the apprentice wage is not enough to cover basic living expenses such as travel, rent and food. In order to cover these expenses many apprentices are having to seek additional part-time employment. It is argued the exploitative wage results in potential apprentices from disadvantaged backgrounds being excluded from the scheme due to the unaffordability. London Council (2012) reported that many young people would in fact be better off receiving benefits than partaking in an apprenticeship scheme. It is also argued the low wage of apprentice scheme creates an inclusivity to those with financially secure parental support, with low income families being unable to afford the resulting loss of child benefit. Also there is evidence Winterbotham et al. (2014) found that 24% of 16-18 year old apprentices are paid below their entitled minimum wage rate, a worrying trend when the level of pay is below the minimum wage. And this was the case with one apprentice that Green interviewed.  Furthermore there is unequal apprenticeship wage distribution the TUC (2013) reported in (2013) that women had no representation in the highest paid apprenticeship occupations such as electricians, whose training has a higher cost premium.  However it has to be recognised that the importance of pay to some apprentices is low because it is offset by training and development opportunities.

The apprentices all had negative perceptions of the apprentice national minimum wage. In regard to the apprentice national minimum wage as Green’s interviews (2015) outline the apprentices found travel and living costs difficult to meet: “It is barely enough to pay the bus fares to work each week…” (Apprentice 1, Sales) “No one could possibly live on £2 something an hour” which was the figure when the apprentice was interviewed. (Apprentice 3, Manufacturing).

A politician who was interviewed accepted that the pay was low but that was why the level was reviewed each year. A manufacturer who employed apprentices picked up on the politicians point about affordability “I recognise it is low…but we must consider the costs”. But this viewpoint was not shared by all the employers with an insurer who pays well above the minimum rate confirming that they didn’t think the low levels were fair.



A notion of unfairness emerged when talking to the apprentices as one apprentice who received over £7.00 a hour indicated with the low rate. It’s ridiculous… it takes the piss out of people” (Apprentice 2, Insurance).The apprentices all had negative perceptions of the apprentice national minimum wage. In regard to the apprentice national minimum wage the apprentices stated that travel and living costs were difficult to meet because they were barely able to pay the bus fares to work and that anyone who had to live on ‘£2, something an hour’ would struggle to keep a car on the road that would get them to work.


It was clear that the apprentices were dependent on family support because of the low levels of pay. For example, a manufacturing apprentice made reference to how cautious he/she had to be when spending and not living at home was not an option. It was the only way to afford the apprenticeship. A hairdressing apprentice considered her/himself to be entirely financially dependent on parental handouts: “I’m not financially dependent on myself at all really… Mum and Dad pay for everything” (Apprentice 4, Hairdressing).


The role of family support in apprenticeships was also mentioned by the trade union representative who viewed it as crucial for successfully completing an apprenticeship scheme because without it they “can’t even get to work” (Union representative). Furthermore the plastics manufacturer who ran 20 apprenticeships regarded parental support as vital to apprenticeship schemes: “It is important with apprenticeship schemes that you have a stable, supportive family” (Plastics manufacturer).


Based on an analysis of Green’s research this suggests that apprenticeships in the UK are viewed as tenable only when apprentices have stable family backgrounds and support, which as the OECD report highlights is not helping those from disadvantaged backgrounds who have more fragmented families. There also needs to be a recognition of the extent of financial dependency on parents and guardians in being able to pursue an apprenticeship scheme and this is clear in the government web-site which has an information site for parents and guardians.  This is a point that needs to be considered politically as there is an assumption that all young people have access to this support, which is not always the case and that young people from more challenging home environment will self-select themselves out of consideration and find themselves excluded from this type of work thereby continuing to perpetuate wider social exclusion for those from unstable family backgrounds.
















Launch of our 1st issue

This was an exciting week for IPED – as we were able to launch our first issue. The idea for the journal came from some unhelpful experiences with the peer review process (some of which were featured on Buzzfeed). We first began discussing the journal in 2011, gradually building an editorial board, a web presence and now publishing our first issue. The team wanted to set up a journal where all content is free to access, there are no charges for submission or publishing. Research should not be held behind paywalls, and open access offers a chance for anyone to submit and access research.

Our first issue can be found here and features research exploring Asperger Syndrome (full paper) in the workplace, apprenticeships (student essay), the experiences of international PhD students (full paper) and equality and diversity managers in higher education (research note). We are also fortunate to include a book review and a commentary from Professor Jo Brewis.

Bringing this 1st issue together has been hard work, but rewarding. We hope IPED will provide a forum for publishing innovative research which challenges the status quo. If you have any ideas for unusual research approaches, teaching ideas or other material you think would be of interest please drop us an email (

I would like to thank Heriot Watt University for supporting the journal, all the authors, editorial board and reviewers for their hard work. I have been delighted by the amount of support the journal has received from scholars across the career stages. We hope you enjoy this first issue and will share it with your networks and join us in making a small (but important) contribution to a shift in academic publishing.

(Real) Cowboy Up!

By Dr. Rebecca Finkel, Senior Lecturer at Queen Margaret University, Edinburgh.

Along with issues of gender identity, I’m also interested in ethnicity and rodeo, especially given America’s somewhat complicated relationship with multiculturalism and so-called race relations. Preliminary secondary research is showing that there is a lot of segregation in rodeo events and performances. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, as events reflect broader societal norms for the most part, but I guess it’s disappointing to see such segregation in this day and age. There’s professional rodeo, which appears to be mainly white men; gay rodeo; women’s rodeo; Native American/Indian rodeo; African-American rodeo; Black rodeo; ‘Cowboys of Color‘; Charreada/Mexican rodeo; Disabled rodeo. It’s almost tribal. Historically, the ‘Wild West’ was a lot more diverse and integrated than rodeo presents it.

I spoke to two friends living in the American West, and they did not seem surprised at all by the multitude of factions in rodeo. It seems to be par for the course. Basically, from my understanding of the situation, the ethnically-focused groups were established as a reaction to the dominance of the white heterosexual male being presented as the ‘real’ cowboys. Interviews with African-American cowboy and rodeo associations bring up the ‘forgotten history’ and ‘lost heritage’ of Black cowboys, who were vital in settling the West.

The myth of the cowboy is very much linked to the rise of segregation and anti-immigration sentiment, which diminished the role of the non-white male in ‘building’ America. The invented tradition of the West has social, political, and moral significance, which has been reinforced by contemporary popular culture and media. Think of a cowboy. Silent, alone on his horse, independent, free to roam. Who comes to mind? John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Gary Cooper, Jack Palance, Alan Ladd (Shane), Clayton Moore (Lone Ranger), Robert Redford, Sam Elliott, the Marlboro Man. Spaghetti Westerns have a lot to account for in constructing the concept of ‘cowboy’ in the popular imagination, it seems. Only in the past decades have marginalised groups started to assert their place and status in the ‘Wild West’ narrative.

A friend in Denver and I were discussing the idea of ‘legitimacy’ and ‘authenticity’ with regard to cowboy culture, which then manifests itself in public performances at rodeos. Authenticity is a complex term, imbued with meaning from those who construct it, given to multiple interpretations and narratives. It appears that authenticity in this case is established by constructing an identity based on ‘othering’ to legitimise yourself.

There appears to be an insecurity among cowboys about ‘infiltration’ from non-real cowboys. This has been exacerbated by a proliferation of rich retirees buying ranches, which has brought skepticism particularly to California cowboys. Has the desire to protect cowboying from fake cowboys translated into racism and homophobia?

Legitimacy of cowboys seems to be defined by beef and bourbon (gout?) and a particular construction of what is and is not ‘real’. It’s not about material culture necessarily – wearing a hat, boots, and gun doesn’t make you a cowboy. Any ‘imposter’ can buy their way into looking like a cowboy.

You have to be tough to take part in some rodeo sports. But how can ‘tough’ be defined by gender, sexuality, ethnicity? Isn’t the act of participating legitimacy enough?

Who is the real cowboy? Is it even a ‘boy’? Why does it matter?

This article previously appeared here.

Rebecca’s blog on rodeo masculinities can be accessed here.

CfP Critical interpretations of the representation and re(production) of organisational life in popular culture: international perspectives.

Special issue CfP (deadline 31st August 2016)

Critical interpretations of the representation and re(production) of organisational life in popular culture: international perspectives.

Guest editors:

Dr Rebecca Finkel, Senior Lecturer, Queen Margaret University,

Dr Kate Sang, Associate Professor, Heriot-Watt University,

Steven Glasgow, PhD student, Heriot Watt University,

This special issue examines the interface between popular culture and organisational life, and how popular culture represents, constructs, and negotiates issues relating to masculinities and femininities. A range of scholars from different disciplines are analysing popular culture to understand the complexities of work under neoliberal capitalism and the personal, professional, and subjective vagaries of organisational life. Recent examples include analyses of series such as Mad Men (see special issue of Cultural Studies Review), Star Trek Voyager (Bowring, 2004), The Bill (a British police procedural drama) (Sullivan and Sheridan, 2005), The Apprentice (Windle, 2010), and Futurama (Pullen and Rhodes, 2012). Analysing popular culture and its representations of working life is useful for media and cultural studies on a number of counts: first, it brings concepts and theories from a wide range of disciplines such as sociology, film studies, communication studies, literary theory, management, and psychoanalysis, bringing new theories and concepts to enrich our analyses of gender and race in organisations. Secondly, as Emma Bell (2008) argues, TV and film allows for an exploration of the emotional and personal aspects of management and organisations, providing resources through which individuals can critically reflect on their work experiences. Thus, film and television can be viewed as part of that social construction of management and organisational life (Bell, 2008). Indeed, popular culture is often critical of working life and large corporations (Hassard and Halliday, 2008). Thirdly, popular culture offers ideals and exemplars of what is imagined to be the ‘good life’ achievable through work.

In spite of the upsurge of interest in popular culture in organisational theory, relatively little of this literature provides us with a sustained feminist or critical race analysis of organisations or management. In particular, little is said about and how films and television may influence managerial and organisational masculinities and femininities and their classing and racialisation. In this special issue, we welcome contributions which explore popular representations of management and managers, especially those which use feminist and critical race theory to critique how managerial masculinities and femininities are (re)produced. We particularly welcome papers which look at the representation of women of colour and from those examining sources of media in languages other than English. Submissions may address (but are not limited to) the following questions:

  • How can feminist analyses of representations of management deepen our understanding of how gender, class and race are (re)produced in contemporary workplaces?
  • How can academic disciplines such as film and television studies or literary theory inform studies of management and its practice?
  • How do cultural representations of organisational life inform, influence or reflect working life?
  • How is gender in the workplace represented in a range of popular culture forms, for example, soap operas, graphic novels, films and fiction. We particularly welcome analyses of popular culture in non English speaking countries.
  • What resources does popular culture offer us for critiquing gendering and racialization in organisations?
  • How can representations of gender at work be used to support teaching?

Submissions can be in English, German, Greek, Thai. For other languages please contact the editorial team as we may be able to accommodate this, for example, French, Spanish or Portugese. To discuss ideas for a paper please contact the editorial team.

Manuscripts should be no more than 8,000 words, including notes and references, and be in conformity with IPED style guidelines. If you have an idea for a shorter piece e.g. a research note please contact the editorial team. We welcome innovative pieces so please do get in touch if you have something you’d like to discuss.

Papers should be submitted online via

Closing date for submissions 31st August, 2016

Student essays

As part of a new initiative, IPED will be accepting student (UG and PGT) essays for consideration in the journal. Essays will be peer reviewed, although reviewers will be asked to provide a commentary on the essay – it’s strengths and where it can be developed. Essays can be on any area of equality and diversity, and be written in English, Greek, German, Thai and French. If you wish to have an essay in another language considered, please send an email to the editor (Kate Sang as we may be able to accommodate this. We ask that essays have an abstract in English (if the submission is not in English) to facilitate peer review.

Essays should be submitted via the online system, with a covering letter which clearly explains that this is a student essay

Viewpoint – Internationalisation of Medical Education: Hierarchies, Inequalities and Future Directions

Dr Maria Tsouroufli, PhD, Senior Research Fellow in Education, Institute of Policy Studies in Education, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, London Metropolitan University, London, UK. Email. Tel: 00442071332158.

In this post I unravel some of the risks embedded in the trade of internationalisation, including unproblematic notions of universalism and disembodiment of medical education and the implications for student access, participation and outcomes. I draw attention to the learning and professional capacities that international medical education favours within a competitive higher education market, dominated by western medical pedagogies, but marketed as valuing diversity and difference.

I propose an emancipatory framework of international medical education which can open up possibilities for equity and social justice in medical education and medicine.

‘Internationalisation of Medical Education: Hierarchies, Inequalities and Future Directions’

Within the wider higher education literature there is a diversity of perspectives on internationalisation. Some scholars have expressed concerns about the reduction of the concept and its policy implications to mobility issues and international student numbers (1, 2).  Internationalisation has been defined by OECD (3) as the integration of an international/intercultural dimension into all of the activities of a University, including the teaching, research and service functions.  Recently there has been a turn to ‘internationalisation at home’ in an attempt to enhance knowledge about intercultural communication and inform the development of pedagogic and management strategies that will promote inclusive learning and teaching within internationalised Universities (1).  Within the literature of ‘internationalisation at home’ the majority of research tends to compare the experiences of University students from one culture with those of another or to evaluate internationalisation strategies developed by institutions.

Internationalisation has become the latest imperative for medical education.  Global economic and social changes have increased the mobility of medical professionals and students and have opened up possibilities for international research and teaching collaborations in medical education. Along with opportunities have come concerns and an increasing interest in defining international standards of medical education that will facilitate the transportability of qualifications and the migration of the international medical workforce (4).

Concerns have also been expressed about the quality of the learning experience in international internships (5,6) and the challenges and coping strategies of international medical students (7).  However, these voices seem marginal within a context of glorification of internationalisation of medical education.  I do not adverse some of the benefits of internationalisation, including the advancement and communication of information and the potential improvement of patient health in digital knowledge economies.  Instead I propose we approach internationalisation with criticality in an attempt to unfold the hidden assumptions upon which the internationalisation imperative is predicated and sustained.

To my knowledge, there has been no systematic attempt to develop a coherent definition of internationalisation or international medical education and its fundamental tenets. For the purposes of this blog I discuss international medical education that encompasses the provision of undergraduate and postgraduate medical education beyond national borders (exporting higher education) and provision of undergraduate and postgraduate medical education for foreign students within the provider country (importing). In what follows I will focus on the hierarchies and inequalities that dominant discourses of internationalisation/international medical education simultaneously reproduce and are shaped by. The discussion is focused on three fundamental questions:

  • Whose knowledge and whose culture translates into symbolic capital (resources and prestige) in international medical education?
  • What capacities for learning and professional practice are privileged in international medical education?
  • What directions do we need to consider in the development of an emancipatory framework of international medical education?

First, we need to consider the global shifts in higher education in terms of philosophy of governance, management and knowledge production.  Shifts from the welfare state to competitive state have resulted in reduced funding for higher education and the corporitization of Universities in many capitalist societies, including the UK.  Higher education is now governed by enterpreneurial ideologies and a culture of ‘corporate managerialism’ (9) with emphasis on accountability, productivity and marketable consumer satisfaction. Universities are caught up in the production of income, graduates and ‘knowledge workers’ (10).  They operate within a context of increased competition and knowledge capitalism which legitimises hunting of new markets and a new form of colonization.  Innovative forms of medical educational provision including cross-national medical schools and e-learning postgraduate medical education courses have grown as economic imperatives in the UK in an attempt to respond to wider political programmes that place higher education at the centre of their capitalist agenda and allegedly the national wealth generation.

Embedded within a global neo-liberalism environment, international medical education programmes are designed to attract and achieve maximum economic and educational capital. Giroux (11) argues that the corrosive corporate culture of Universities ignores privileges and hierarchies, and impacts on our understanding of higher education.

Face-to-face international undergraduate medical education programmes in the Mediterranean and the Middle East and online international postgraduate medical education programmes are American or British initiatives that serve a predominantly non-white and non-Anglosaxonic student population. Medical education in English in these regions and bilingual (English and Chinese) medical education in another big market, China, are very popular (12).  The marketed value of such courses is scripted in two contradictory premises; the assumed neutrality and universality of medical knowledge and professional practice, and the realisation of educational and cultural capital that will enhance graduates’ employability within the international market.

Within the social sciences there is a long tradition of problematization of knowledge production and generalizability. The political power, control and injustices intertwined with knowledge claims (e.g. Western theories used to support the assumed inferiority of certain races or medical science used to construct the ‘hysterical’ female body); the partiality of all knowledge, including the uncertainty of medical evidence (13) and the authentication of knowledge claims by powerful actors within academia (14, 15) are some examples of influential work on knowledge production and legitimization. However, such claims might seem an anathema to medical science and indeed all ‘hard’ sciences, allegedly indifferent to geography, nationality and politics.

My intention here is not to contest the validity of certain medical claims but rather to draw attention to the complex practices and processes that construct hierarchies of knowledge, credentials and professional practice and perpetuate inequalities within the international education market.

The control of medical education markets by predominantly American, British and Australian higher education is legitimised through global representations endorsing the superiority of one medical education curriculum over another (‘non-Western’).  The long history of colonialism provided the context for constructing ‘Western’ driven, but universally applied systems of knowledge and education. Neo-liberal domination on the other hand has led to redundancy of pedagogies of social justice, and a pre-occupation with educational and economic outcomes of higher education curricula.

The ascendancy of neoliberal ideology in higher education shifts attention from higher education as a public good to individual good as a civic responsibility. Under neo-liberalism, learners are faced with endless possibilities and free choices in knowledge economy. They are expected to be entrepreneurial, competitive and pre-occupied with success (16, 17).  The silencing of the pedagogical and ethical challenges posed by international medical education is legitimised within a context of learning reduced largely to economic motive (18) and individual, cognitive-technical practice.

 ‘The way that knowledge is organised both physically and epistemologically within most mainstream higher education context demands the erasure of the body’ (19).  The body is discussed here as both a physical as well as social-cultural site for reifying, re-making or resisting learning and professional meanings and practices (20). It has feelings, morals, and dilemmas lived within communities of practice (21) and shaped by personal as well as collective predispositions influenced by social constructs of gender, class, culture and ethnicity (22). The body does emotional labour, and perpetuates ideologies within a web of professional and power relations in a hospital, general practice or community setting. For example a female orthopaedic surgical trainee might manage her body (e.g. appearance, emotions, ‘technical’ skills and even reproductive choices) in ways that are acceptable within the gendered hidden curriculum of surgery. All these embodied acts are fundamental in the learning experiences of medical students/trainees and their professional identification process (23).

Western medical training has claimed to intentionally aspire to produce ‘rational’, disembodied doctors, homogenised and neutralised in terms of social difference and diversity (24).  Despite increasing interest on socio-cultural theories of learning in medical education research and teaching, the body is paradoxically obsolete, discredited and always present in medical training and work.  Embodied experiences such as power, control and assimilation, have received attention in undergraduate medical education research on gender, medical student identity (25, 26, 27, 28) and medical enculturation in postgraduate medical training and practice (29).

However, even in this pioneer medical educational literature the body remains conceptually and analytically implicit, rather than a fundamental instrument in constituting scholarly and professional habitus (30);  a set of dispositions to learning and professional practice that generate identities and shape successful participation in medicine and medical education.

Successful performance of favoured embodied acts allows medical students to fit into social relationships and knowledge paradigms in international medical education and develop educational capital. Embodied and gendered dispositions such as doing independent learning (15), not asking for help, controlling emotions and working ‘all hours’ have been viewed as positive and subtly reinforced in UK medical education.  Demonstration of these ‘qualities’ has been associated with capacity for educational achievement and professional competence (31).

Unfortunately medical education research has not so far explored the contradictions or oppositions between the learning dispositions and capacities of medical students/trainees and the formal and informal international medical curricula. What capacities are required for access and successful participation in international medical education? What sorts of habitus and capital facilitate access to international medical education?  If competence in the English language is one of the selection criteria we need to think what educational and economic capital would successful international applicants need to have, and what educational and social inequalities might be reproduced or increased within the context of international medical education.

How might local understandings of learning and doctoring influenced by the lived experiences of culture, religion and the gender order contradict valued and favoured embodied capacities in international medical schools? For example, if ‘selling’ the self in an admissions interview in a cross-national medical school is valued and assessed positively, what strategies of self-regulation might some non-Western female students have to employ in an attempt to participate and fit in international medical education?

Currently, student-centred methods originating in Western culture seem to represent an ‘international’ standard (32). For example, the application of problem-based learning in non-Western contexts raises a lot of questions about the implications for these methods for student participation and achievement in international medical education. What feelings, dilemmas and difficulties might international students have to manage to align their learning dispositions and identities with the normative expectations of international medical schools?

Medical education research is replete with examples of inequalities in educational achievement among different ethnic groups (33, 34). Recently considerable attention has been given to biographical and bio-psychosocial risk factors among underperforming factors in the UK, including cultural differences and country of qualification (35, 36).

Although this research is valuable in raising awareness about inequalities in medical education and medicine, it does not tell us much about the embodied learning and professional practices in undergraduate and postgraduate medical education that shape and are shaped by students’ different forms of capital (cultural, economic and social), nor does it throw any light on the learners’ relationships with the field (e.g. a hospital or a specific medical school); ‘a network of objective relations between positions’ (37)  functioning as an arena ‘of production, circulation and appropriation of goods, services, knowledge or status which participants struggle for power and capital’ (38).

Empirical research in international medical education needs to examine the different forms of capital that medical students bring and the implications for learning; the embodied medical habitus valued and reproduced in international medical education; as well as the costs of international students performances of fitting in (39, 40). I propose an emancipatory framework of international medical education which can open up possibilities for equity by focusing on the following future priorities:

  • Embracing medical student diversity and difference (cultural, religious, ethnic etc.) as a resource for developing inclusive medical curricula for all learners and cosmopolitan identities
  • Shifting attention from diversity in admissions to challenging marginalisation and racism, and the effects of racism on retention and success in international medical education.
  • Conducting medical education research on belonging and inclusion of ‘international’ medical students and the personal and professional costs of embodied performances of fitting in.


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It’s time to embrace workload planning!

By Dr Kate Bower, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, University of Technology, Sydney.

I recently had the pleasure of talking with Professor Terry Threadgold, eminent feminist scholar whose academic work has traversed the areas of English literature, performance studies, women’s studies, media studies, journalism, linguistics and legal studies.

She recently retired as Pro-Vice-Chancellor: Staff at Cardiff University, a role she described as an ‘equality champion’.

Terry is highly regarded in the UK and internationally for her work in equity and diversity in the higher education sector. Our discussion was wide-ranging and fascinating but one thing in particular struck a chord with me – her views on workload models and planning in academia.

In the Australian context (the only one I’m familiar with), workload plans are frequently derided by academics as yet another form of neo-liberal managerial control imposed on our creative minds.

Unions view them as a tool that the administration wields to corral unruly academics into line with university directives. When used incorrectly workload plans can be an exercise in box-ticking and time-wasting, contributing to the growing administrative load on academics.

However, Terry Threadgold thinks that workload models should have a central place in a feminist and equity and diversity agenda in higher education.


As a lifelong academic, Terry was aware in her role as PVC: Staff of the tendency for academics’ to work themselves into the ground if left to their own devices.

For most, if not all scholars, their work is a labour of love, a creative endeavour, a vocation in the original sense of the word.

Hence, academics’ resistance to ‘accounting’ for their work in the crude matrix of workload modeling.

Yet because of their commitment and dedication, academics frequently spend many hours working outside normal business hours – nights, early mornings and weekends.

A personal anecdote gives an indication of the commonality of the practice.

A work colleague posted a Facebook status update on a Sunday afternoon complaining that his institutional email was not functioning and asking colleagues if they were having the same problem.

Twenty-five colleagues responded noting the same problem and complaining about the work that wasn’t getting done because of it.

That is twenty-six academics working on a Sunday and not one mentioned it as exceptional!

Additional hours spent working is not necessarily problematic on its own, if it’s a decision made by an individual because they choose to devote their time to their passion.

A problem arises when it becomes the norm.

Management develops expectations about what an ordinary academic can achieve in terms of workload and outputs on the basis of what the workforce is producing – the expectation is that this work is done in a 40-hour week (in Australia the official working work is in fact 35 hours), when in reality many academics are spending 50 or even 60 hours a week working.

This means the ‘standard’ for academic achievement becomes distorted and expectations become unrealistic.

Just like any other job, an academic’s job should be achievable in normal business hours.

Overtime should be a choice not a necessity.

By now, the implications for equity should be evident but let me elaborate the point.

For some academics, working 50 or 60 hours a week is just not possible.

Women, sole parents and people with disabilities are disproportionately affected. Despite progress in the numbers of couples co-parenting, women are still more often the primary carers for children and for elderly parents.

The responsibilities of caring for children, aging or unwell parents or perhaps a sibling or partner with severe disability make it difficult to manage a 40-hour working week, let alone finding time on nights or weekends to work.

These problems can be compounded for sole parents who have similar responsibilities but no one to share the load.

Some academics with disabilities require extra time and assistance to participate in the workforce and simply do not have the option to work overtime.

An example: I’m a member of a Facebook group for academic mums and the most common complaint is the anxiety and fear caused by having to compete for jobs with colleagues who can devote many more hours to their work because they don’t have children to care for; and the networking opportunities missed by not being able to attend after-work events or international conferences.

This is where Terry Threadgold sees an opportunity for workload models to help.

If academics use the workload model to accurately account for their time and their activities; to reflect the enormous effort in terms of intellect and time invested that produces academic work; it can be advantageous to all.

As Pro-vice-chancellor Terry was able to use workload models to create a more equitable work place by demonstrating an appropriate workload in a way that was appealing to university management.

Workload models that accurately reflect the hours spent on each activity can highlight the prevalence of overtime and change the expectations of managers overseeing academics workload, meaning that all academics can participate in the workforce equally without impacting their personal and caring responsibilities.

In the case of Cardiff University, Terry and her colleagues were also able to demonstrate the need for more permanent full-time academics leading to several new appointments across the institution.

In the long run, embracing the workload plan as an equity tool created a more equitable workplace (in terms of participation), less overtime for academic staff, new full-time appointments and greater job security for those appointed from casual or contract based positions.

Maybe it’s time to embrace workload modeling and planning as a useful strategy to address equity and diversity issues in academia?

NB: This blog post was written entirely within normal business hours!