Gnawed with nerves 'like rats in a cage'

24th March 2000 at 00:00
STRESSED-OUT lecturers are unable to sleep through worry, have no time to relax, feel emotionally drained and can't concentrate. Their plight is likened to that of rats kept in overcrowded cages.

The findings have emerged in a workplace survey carried out by the Educational Institute of Scotland, the biggest college union, which has already revealed in its evidence to the funding council's review of FE management that a "startling" 75 per cent of staff do not think their college is well run.

The survey, based on returns from a third of the union's 4,500 FE members, shows lecturers blame underfunding, management practices and a loss of "vision" for putting their jobs under unacceptable strains.

The EIS says the cumulative effects of underfunding and the drive to bring in more and more income require thorough investigation. The Government has allocated an extra pound;214 million to the sector over three years but this is largely to meet extra burdens.

The report states: "The workload of lecturers in an environment where funding concerns require that classes increase in size regardless of inadequate accommodation, lack of resources and poorly qualified students is a major cause for concern.

"Reports of evenings and weekends spent preparing and marking because of increased class contact and a massive increase in administration work lead to a large number of participants reporting severe time stress."

Out of 15 "stress factors," six were cited by more than 70 per cent of lecturers. The most common gripe was "it is necessary for me to concentrate on more than one task at a time". Other major complaints included a growing administrative burden, bad communication within the college, insufficient time to prepare for classes, a rushed pace of work and insufficient time to deal with students' problems.

The findings also reveal significant signs of depression among staff and a determination to struggle in when unwell which the study suggests is an indication of "time stress" rather than of commitment to the job.

The report notes research carried out in the United States on the effects of stress on rats kept in overcrowded conditions with no proper rest and in temperatures which were too high or too low. This led to "inhibition of the immune sysem, hypertension and slowing down of healing processses". Similar effects are likely in humans exposed to "long-term moderate stress".

The major educational impact, according to most lecturers, is the pressure to take all-comers on to courses because funding demands require more and more "bums on seats". Among the results are reduced levels of lecturer efficiency as teaching is necessary at a number of abilities and additional work generated by large classes and students who are not properly qualified for the course.

The survey suggests there has also been "a serious decline in standards" because staff are under pressure to pass as many students as possible so colleges do not lose out financially. "Quality issues are not adequately addressed," the report states. "Although management systems have increased the number and frequency of quality audits, these are generally regarded as paper-based exercises that do not address the real issues of concern."

The study acknowledges that many of the problems facing FE have their origins in the underfunding which has limited colleges' room for manoeuvre. But it adds: "This did not alter the widespread feeling that management responses were seriously flawed in nature, causing an inevitable decline in educational and professional standards that threatened the existence of further education in Scotland."

Among the management's alleged flaws are autocratic and hierarchical practices, ineffective communication, a lack of "people skills" and a refusal to listen to the concerns of staff. The survey reported 60 instances of bullying and harassment at work.

The EIS now plans to launch a stress awareness campaign and expects branch officials to open negotiations with individual colleges to discuss the problem. Marian Healy, its further and higher education officer, said: "We had no appreciation it is as widespread as the survey reveals."

Sarah Chisnall, policy manager of the Association of Scottish Colleges, said she believed the management review would show that considerable progress had been made in addressing management issues at a very difficult time of financial restraint. But the colleges would continue to work with the funding council following the outcome of the review.

Leader, page 14

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