The SLOW University –work, time and well-being

The SLOW University –work, time and well-being

Maggie O’Neill, Durham University

Dialogues within and outwith the Higher Education sector are converging  around  the need for a socio-cultural shift towards slowing down the pace of work, life and consumption, improving well-being  and providing counter narratives  to processes of globalisation and the  ‘Gridlock’ that Hale, Held and Young (2013) write about.

In a seminar series initiated at Durham University and a series of Blogs, colleagues and I have addressed the potential of the concept of the SLOW University for our experiences of work, life, time,  well-being and the very  meaning of the University in current times. The motivation for organising the seminars emerged from dialogue with colleagues, our biographical experiences and resistance  to the speeding up of Higher Education, the impact of the audit culture and ‘marketisation’; as well as growing pressures, for some, in relation to developing a work/life balance in the context of metrics, audit, efficiency, increased competition,  demand management of research grant generation and the importance of hitting performance targets for career development and promotion. The gendered dimensions of these issues have been central to our discussions.

Fast Academia in the UK

In Higher Education the impact of marketization and  neo-liberalism as well as  digital technology  is central to  the experience of  academics across the career spectrum.  Ruth Mueller researched for her PhD, the  experiences shared by Nadine Muller in her excellent  blog  ‘the new academic’, to Ross Gill (2009) and Roger Burrows (2012) offering criticism of, respectively,  ‘the hidden injuries of neo-liberal academia’ and the ‘H Index (a measure, introduced by Jorge  Hirsch in 2005 to  measure scientific productivity and impact

All these academics, to varying degrees, deal with the issues underpinning the rise of fast academia: being ‘on’ all the time; the impossibility of sustaining punishing workloads and the inadequacy of responses by Universities such as fixing the individual through time management courses; and funding and  marketization processes  that leaves postdocs on a cycle of short term contracts experiencing  fear of failure, existential angst and for a rising number of academics  mental health problems. Thomas Docherty (Warwick University) writes that: ‘our universities are lurching their own way into precariousness, and in many ways threaten to overtake the United States on the path toward corporate thinking and placing commercial values above academic ones.

Fast Academia in North America and Canada

Beyond the UK North American and Canadian colleagues have been writing about fast academia for some time.  Brian Treanor’s Slow University: A Manifesto, written in the summer of 2007 opens with him stating: “I find myself with a distressing lack of idle time and, without presuming to speak for others, I believe I am not alone in this respect. Most weeks I do not get a sufficient amount of sleep, much less adequate time for meditation, prayer, idling, and creative absent-mindedness. What’s wrong with this picture? And, more importantly, what can I do to fix it?”  Treanor undertook a commitment to a Slow University movement on his campus and he called for others to join him in the development, posting ‘slow hours’ in his schedule where he does not write, answer the telephone, respond to emails or attend meetings. Jeremy Hunsinger, Assistant Professor in Communication Studies at Wilfrid Laurier University, writes ‘Against Speed Cosmopolitanism towards the Slow University’ and  promotes  the Slow Science Manifesto.

Philosopher and critical theorist Lambert Zuidervaart, writing from Ontario, Canada suggests that the University is at a major crossroads and its location remains unsettled for three major reasons “muddled missions, external pressures, and entrenched patterns”.  Lamenting the fact that alongside significant government cut backs in funding, consumerist attitudes and values have taken hold which has a deleterious effect upon the universities as centres for “dialogical learning, critical inquiry, and creative exploration…..and human flourishing.”  With an increasing demand for measuring outcomes, success and impact the kinds and types of learning  permitted or encouraged are circumscribed. Zuidervaart asks, what then are the pedagogical implications? He suggests it is time to take a different path and proposes ‘ethical scholarship for the common good’. By this he means “teaching and research that consciously pursue social responsibility and continually orient themselves to the common good, to connection and community.”

Business, Economics and Corporations

Outwith the HE sector there is a growing interest in a  re-structuring of working lives and a major focus from the  current government and the  home office on   well-being and even happiness.  A report recently published by the New Economic Foundation ‘21 hours   advocates just that, a twenty one hour working week. The authors, Anna Coote and Jane Franklin  argue  for a much shorter working week   to address a range of urgent social problems:  ‘overwork, unemployment, over-consumption, high carbon emissions, low well-being, entrenched inequalities, and the lack of time to live sustainably, to care for each other, and simply to enjoy life’.  Work and Well-being is the subject of a range of reports and journalist Brigid Schulte ‘argues a workplace culture that rewards those who are overworked is flawed’ and she ‘challenges managers, business owners and leaders to adopt a new attitude of work, one where performance rather than time, and a life outside of work rather than a life consisting of work is the norm.’

British Government and Well-being & Happiness

In 2010 the current government tasked the Office of National Statistics  with devising a  measurement for measuring wellbeing in Britain. A ‘debate’  on ‘what matters to you?‘ was held in 2011 and the findings developed  into a wellbeing measurement framework. Lord Layard’s research on happiness is central to this.  In his  paper on ‘Well-Being  And Policy’ (2006), he declared that  the prime purpose of social science should be to discover what helps and hinders happiness.  The Home Office in response have  developed a  ‘Well-Being Framework’  (with the intention: ‘to create a physical and cultural environment that promotes a state of physical and psychological health which allows employees to achieve their full potential for the benefit of themselves and the Department.  The recently published ‘Report on Wellbeing & Public Policy by the Legatum Institute proposes a radical reform of public policy-making, targeted at wellbeing, or life satisfaction, not just GDP or economic growth.  The report concludes that ‘policy should aim at increasing people’s satisfaction with their lives, using measures of wellbeing as an indicator of success. The report explains how to define and measure wellbeing, and demonstrates how it can be used to measure the success of different policies and different countries’.

Underneath the focus on well-being, however, is a deeper focus upon productivity and the importance of measurement not just for getting a more accurate picture, but for harnessing knowledge to improve wealth masquerading as wellbeing through public policy.

SLOW Movement/SLOW University?

In the SLOW movement we find a focus upon a more reflective way of being, doing and living connected to addressing these very issues of well-being, the common good, connection and community.   SLOW food, Citta Slow and the transition town movement are all examples of change movements towards Slow.

Carl Honore’s Slow revolution and ‘In Praise of Slowness, Geir Berthelson’s World Institute of Slowness and Christopher Richardson’s fictional web-site are all examples of SLOW change movements.   The SLOW Science manifesto states that ‘Slow science was pretty much the only science conceivable for hundreds of years; today, we argue it deserves revival and needs protection’.

In a talk to a seminar series at Durham on the SLOW university Carl Honore discussed how big businesses such as Volkswagon, HBO, Procter and Gamble  and Google are addressing  a culture of  over work and being ‘on line all the time’ to illustrate the power of slowing down, of working fewer hours  and increasing well-being, happiness for businesses, labour and productivity.  Honore described how Volkswagon put a ban on out of hours work emails and has email free days. Highlighting articles in the Huffington Post and the Economist, he urged us to do less and think more, to engage in luminous thinking and that engaging with SLOW does not mean stopping. There is no need to fetishise SLOW, but rather we could be doing things at the appropriate pace. Honore left us with three tenets for the SLOW University: measure less, think slowly and unplug.

Similarly, Filip Vostal (2014) critiques fast academia but at the same time tracks the positive attributes of variegated “acceleration as integral components of academic lifeworld.” Vostal recommends the use of ‘unhasty time’ for academics. Elsewhere, Vostal argues that there has to be a middle way between ‘an ethic of slowness’ and ‘ ninja- like productivity.’ He promotes the notion of ‘scholarly time’ that includes unhasty time, deccelerative  and accelerative moments conceived as a critical resource for academic work and as an ‘explicit political demand’ and ‘an ethical principle.’

The bottom line is that behind fast academia is the marketization of higher education: high student fees, the incursion of private providers, universities becoming like businesses, and changing styles of management and a focus on quantity over quality.  However,It is clear that these lines of thinking, dialogue and creative application documented above are gaining momentum. It is time for change.

We are developing a network across our Universities, organizing a further seminar series and will  continue to debate these issues  and  ultimately to feed into policy as well as practice. Taking us beyond the H-index these dialogues will continue to look at the University in relation to time, speed and slow and ask what new philosophies, practices structures and governance might emerge?

Forthcoming Seminars will take place at Sussex, Brunel, Lund, and Newcastle. We also plan to continue blogging and sharing ideas for more ‘spacious’ engagement in inter-disciplinary dialogue and collaboration and invite artists to join us.  The dialogues that emerge might take us towards answering the question –‘what might a radical democratic imaginary for a 21st century University look and feel like and what modes of management are possible in current times’? Join us, if you have the time!


Burrows R (2012) Living with the h-index? Metric assemblages in the contemporary academy. Sociological Review. E pub ahead of print 15 May 2012.

Coote, A. and Franklin, J. (2013) 21 Hours  London:New Economics Foundation

Gill, R (2009) Breaking the silence: The hidden injuries of neo-liberal academia in Flood,R. & Gill,R. (Eds.) Secrecy and Silence in the Research Process: Feminist Reflections. London: Routledge

Hale, T. Held, D. and Young,K. (2013) Gridlock: Why Global Cooperation is Failing when We Need It Most Cambridge:Polity

Honore, C. (2005)   In Praise of Slowness: challenging the cult of speed London: Orion

Layard, Richard (2006) ‘Happiness and public policy: a challenge to the profession Economic Journal, 116 (510). C24-C33.

Lodge, D. (1975)Changing Places: A Tale of Two Campuses  London: Secker and Warburg.

O’Donnell, Gus and Deaton, Angus and Durand, Martine and Halpern, David and Layard, Richard (2014) Well-being and policy Legatum Institute, London, UK.

Schulte, B. (2014) Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time  London:Bloomsbury

Vostal, F. (2014)  ‘British academia Academic life in the fast lane: The experience of time and speed in Time & Society

Maggie O’Neill is Professor in Criminology at Durham University, she is co-director of the Centre for sex, gender and sexualities and chair of the ESA research network on European Biographies. She edited Sociology between 1999 and 2001 with Tony Spybey and was until recently Principal of Ustinov College at Durham. Her latest book was written with Lizzie Seal and published in 2012 by Routledge – Transgressive Imaginations: crime, deviance and culture.

22 Comment responses

  1. Avatar
    June 06, 2014

    This is a fairly minor point, but Canada is part of North America. It’s kind of offensive to write us out of our continent by referring to “North American and Canadian universities.”


  2. Avatar
    June 16, 2014

    I blame tablets and smartphones in particular.
    In the old days (from the early 90s) , email and web access was at the office. So it stopped when you went home (or maybe you had an inefficient dialup). This was still the case when I wrote my phD at home and lecturered in the day, in the mid 1990s. it was possible to separate activities.
    Then we moved to home wireless and laptop access to web, and faster machines. (this is where I am at now). This allowed working from home – which is great if you are a carer or constrained, btu not so good if you fail to ever disconnect and switch off for some downtime.
    Those who take the next step and have 24 hour connectivity, with Twitter, Facebook, other social media, personal and work email, unlimited web access on a gadget, are no longer working in the SLOW university – this is Fast capitalism, as Nigel Thrift terms it. Proponents of fast activity expect instant email replies. They are also accessing a lot of complex information on a very small gadget, and using it to do many tasks – translation, wayfinding, shopping…. this cannot be good and it tends against a measured pace of life.
    In my opinion, stage 2 is about as far as we need to go. Smartphones do not belong in a slow academic world.


    • Avatar
      November 25, 2015

      I agree. It’s really a technology issue. Until we can learn to manage our use of technology nothing will ever be slow-paced because if you don’t go to work, work can come to you. ” To work less and think more” requires us to disconnect sometimes.


  3. Avatar
    June 17, 2014

    Great article.


  4. Avatar
    June 18, 2014

    Great post. These papers (linked below) are very relevant to the conversation above. The second paper moves beyond identifying problems and offers a roadmap for change


  5. Avatar
    June 19, 2014

    Correction. The International Institute of Not Doing Much at is written by Christoper Richards, not Christopher Richardson.


    • Avatar
      June 19, 2014

      Here is a correction to the correction: Christoper Richards should be Christopher Richards. I wasn’t slow enough typing.


  6. Avatar
    November 26, 2015

    It’s all very well an academic from Durham talking about the slow university. Durham is one of the most agressive of the neoliberal institutions, determined to casualise their workforce, employ teaching fellows and treat them like crap instead of like “proper” academics, have research fellows on fixed term contracts and dump them at the end of their contract in breach of employment law, no proper career structure for either group. O’Neill did nothing to fix any of this while I was there, as far as I could tell. Yeah she has some nice ideas and is a nice person, but did she act on her nice ideas? Nope.


  7. Avatar
    October 31, 2016

    I would like to start a group on campus of Slow Professors. I wonder how to go about doing this when the whole tenure-track etc machine is at work everywhere?