Why is the Time Allocation Survey important, and what is the Transparent Approach to Costing?

By Sophie Collet, Conny Lippert, James Hackney, Marc Strydom and Sarah Everett-Cox 

With many competing pressures on our time at the moment, it is important we know why we are asked to do certain things. One example is the Time Allocation Survey (TAS), which is being carried out during this academic year (2022/23). There are three periods that form part of this return, and the third of these opens for completion from 1 August 2023.

The Transparent Approach to Costing (TRAC) is a sector-standard methodology used in the UK for costing universities’ main activities (teaching, research, and other). A key part of this approach is the TAS, which captures how our academic staff spend their time across the activity categories. It is a government requirement that all universities collect this data at least once every three years, although Bristol has agreed to run the TAS again in 2023/24 to ensure that the data are as accurate as possible, and that any changes in working practices noted in the current return are not outliers.

TAS return data are used to determine the average time per activity for each School, which in turn determines which activity and sponsor type to allocate institutional income and costs to. Funders have previously recognised that there have been pressures in the HEI system that encourage academics to overstate their time on research at the expense of teaching. The data captured by TAS responses provide one lens to inform our strategic decision-making, including understanding balance of activities and our resources, and allocation of internal funding, enabling the University to achieve its strategic goals.

Our annual TRAC return is also submitted to the Office for Students (OfS) each year and has direct implications for strategic planning decisions made at national level, such as in relation to the public funding of higher education.

It’s therefore crucial that the TAS data we collect are as accurate as possible.

There are a few key points we think are worth clarifying:

  • Conversations around workload planning (eg if you feel you are working excessive hours) should take place with line managers as a separate discussion outside TAS completion.
  • TAS requires a percentage allocation of ALL time worked (ie this should cover all of your working time and not just work completed in traditional office hours).
  • TAS is not an individual performance management tool. It’s designed and intended to show the balance of actual work completed over each period, and the analysis that is performed on this data will be aggregated at School and Faculty level.

University of Bristol colleagues can find further guidance on completing the TAS on the MyERP SharePoint site here, and you can contact tas-support@bristol.ac.uk if you have any questions about the TAS return.

You can find a more detailed explanation of the importance of TRAC and TAS in Why is TAS important, and what is TRAC? (PDF file).


4 thoughts on “Why is the Time Allocation Survey important, and what is the Transparent Approach to Costing?

  1. A major reason for disillusionment with the TAS is the contradiction between the stated aim (“to determine the average time per activity”) and the nature of the data collected (“percentage allocation of ALL time worked”). This means, to take one example, that every hour worked on research on an evening, weekend or leave day reduces the apparent time spent on teaching. With many staff working 50% or more hours than are contracted this can substantially bias the collected data. It’s hard to see the fix for this, other than the OfS recognising that there is a lot of work done at Universities that is essentially voluntary unpaid overtime.

  2. I agree with and support Nigel’s comment. One possible remedy would be for the TAS to record, in addition to the percentage of time allocated to different activities, the total number of hours spent on work. I think colleagues would be more inclined to engage on this basis.

  3. I support these comments. These data are meaningless for planning unless the percentages are related to the actual hours worked. Even if the TAS return itself does not ask for total hours worked, UoB could collect these data to use alongside the percentage data for its own internal planning, which might make the exercise more meaningful.

  4. I certainly understand the issue. The first point to reiterate is that TAS should not be a substitute for managing workload via effective line management, workload modelling, etc. Having said that, it is understandable that the current system is seen as masking the reality on the ground in terms of hours worked.
    Time allocation methods are a requirement as outlined in the TRAC guidance which is a regulatory/statutory return (i.e., they must be completed). There is a choice of three methods of time collection available to institutions: 1) in-year data collection (i.e., TAS), 2) statistical data collection, or 3) workload planning methods.
    The University of Bristol uses in-year data collection since this needs to be completed a minimum of every 3 years. With other methods, annual collection is required. Therefore, although there is a choice of time collection methods, TAS has been selected by Bristol as the least burdensome approach to collecting this data.
    Alternative methods would change the required frequency of engagement, which may impact on respondents’ workloads. For example, the workload planning method is potentially attractive, but it could mean more input overall from academic colleagues and support staff.
    Data collected as a % of time is then weighted and utilised in the TRAC model. Data collected as hours would have to be converted to % before being weighted and utilised. TRAC itself must comply with GDPR by collecting time as a % to ensure data are used for the intended purpose to offer security that individuals will not be benchmarked from the data.
    I do understand that many of our colleagues would prefer data to be collected in hours. If this would help drive more / more accurate TAS completion, and provide better data for TRAC, this would be double beneficial. I will therefore explore this (and other) options for the University of Bristol with the members of the TRAC Oversight Group.
    However, it’s worth noting that any changes will take time, and therefore the method of collection for the current return will remain the same. I hope people will engage fully with this round, even if there are frustrations with or concerns about the method.
    Professor Marcus Munafò, Associate Pro Vice-Chancellor for Research Culture

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *