Per­for­mance tar­gets can have dam­ag­ing ef­fects, warn Gill Evans and Dorothy Bishop

Ap­praisal tar­gets such as ‘grant cap­ture’ dam­ages schol­ars’ morale and in­sti­tu­tions’ rep­u­ta­tions, say Gill Evans and Dorothy Bishop

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CONTENTS - Dorothy Bishop is pro­fes­sor of de­vel­op­men­tal neu­ropsy­chol­ogy at the Uni­ver­sity of Ox­ford and Gill R. Evans is emer­i­tus pro­fes­sor of me­dieval the­ol­ogy and in­tel­lec­tual his­tory at the Uni­ver­sity of Cam­bridge.

The Uni­ver­sity of Sal­ford’s re­cent dis­missal of a pro­fes­sor of Ital­ian pol­i­tics for fail­ing to meet per­for­mance tar­gets – no­tably a re­quire­ment to “cap­ture” the re­quired amount of grant money – marks an­other step down the UK uni­ver­sity sec­tor’s road to perdi­tion.

This jour­ney will end not only with rock­bot­tom morale and men­tal health among aca­demic staff, but also with evis­cer­ated uni­ver­si­ties and schol­ar­ship. And, as Brexit bites and com­pe­ti­tion for stu­dents in­creases, it is a jour­ney that is likely only to ac­cel­er­ate.

At the heart of the prob­lem is the col­lapse of the pas­toral into the ju­di­cial when it comes to the man­age­ment of aca­demic per­for­mance. A sys­tem that is por­trayed as ex­ist­ing to “de­velop” staff now tends to in­clude the set­ting of tar­gets, with the prom­ise of “sup­port” if these are not met. That mu­tates into “warn­ings” about “per­for­mance”, and leads fi­nally to a “ca­pa­bil­ity” dis­missal that is pro­ce­du­rally in­dis­tin­guish­able from the one fol­lowed in dis­ci­plinary cases.

This evo­lu­tion of the “per­sonal devel­op­ment re­view” into the “per­for­mance devel­op­ment re­view” can oc­cur with­out the in­sti­tu­tion even con­sciously recog­nis­ing it. This is il­lus­trated in the sur­pris­ingly frank com­ments that man­agers at one uni­ver­sity gave a PhD stu­dent ex­plor­ing per­for­mance man­age­ment a decade ago. One said: “Per­for­mance man­age­ment is, for me, about all mem­bers of staff

con­tribut­ing to the over­all cor­po­rate strate­gic ob­jec­tives.” But aca­demics’ con­tracts are un­likely to state that duty – or, in­deed, a duty to bring in suf­fi­cient in­come to pay their own salary, as uni­ver­si­ties are in­creas­ingly in­sist­ing on.

The im­pact on in­di­vid­ual aca­demics at the sharp end of this can be ex­treme. Ste­fan Grimm com­mit­ted sui­cide in Septem­ber 2014 be­cause he had been in­formed that he was fail­ing to meet “the met­rics of a pro­fes­so­rial post at Im­pe­rial Col­lege” around grant cap­ture. In a posthu­mously sent email, Grimm said: “I was never in­formed about this be­fore and can­not re­mem­ber that this is part of my con­tract with the col­lege”.

Us­ing grant cap­ture as a cri­te­rion of an aca­demic’s worth will cre­ate a sense of both in­jus­tice and help­less­ness since the num­ber of high-qual­ity grant pro­pos­als greatly ex­ceeds the amount of fund­ing avail­able – to the ex­tent that some fun­ders are now adopt­ing a lot­tery ap­proach.

Grimm’s case also il­lus­trates a com­mon man­age­ment ig­no­rance about the pro­ce­dural re­quire­ments of dis­missal. Grimm was told that his head of de­part­ment was about to “sack” him, but the 1988 Ed­u­ca­tion Re­form Act makes clear that dis­missal is law­ful only af­ter a lengthy and elab­o­rate pro­ce­dure.

Im­pe­rial’s cur­rent ca­pa­bil­ity pro­ce­dure, re­viewed af­ter Grimm’s sui­cide, de­fines “ca­pa­bil­ity is­sues” as fail­ures to meet “the ac­cept­able level of per­for­mance… in terms of the quan­tity and qual­ity of work, de­spite gen­uine ef­fort”. But “quan­tity” and “qual­ity” are nowhere stated to in­clude grant cap­ture.

The Sal­ford and Im­pe­rial ex­am­ples in­volve tar­geted in­di­vid­u­als. But we also see a kind of batch pro­cess­ing of aca­demics via re­dun­dancy pro­ce­dures. These carry com­plex le­gal re­quire­ments but it is not prov­ing dif­fi­cult for uni­ver­si­ties to cre­ate plau­si­ble “busi­ness plans” or in­sti­tu­tional “strate­gies” in­volv­ing the re­or­gan­i­sa­tion of de­part­ments fol­low­ing de­ci­sions to cease to teach or re­search in par­tic­u­lar sub­jects.

Once a cat­e­gory of “nec­es­sary re­dun­dan­cies” is es­tab­lished, se­lec­tion of in­di­vid­u­als can law­fully fol­low, and chal­lenges in tri­bunals have tended to fail. The prac­tice is threat­en­ing the pre­sump­tion that “per­ma­nent con­tracts” – in­creas­ingly rare any­way – should be hon­oured un­til re­tire­ment.

A fo­cus on grant in­come is par­tic­u­larly in­ap­pro­pri­ate in the Sal­ford case. Hu­man­i­ties re­search is of­ten soli­tary, re­quir­ing dis­tor­tion to make it look as though it needs more staff, space and equip­ment. Sal­ford’s per­for­mance man­age­ment of its pro­fes­sors is also par­tic­u­larly dra­co­nian in its ar­range­ments for the pas­toral to slide into the ju­di­cial. But the in­sti­tu­tion is not alone in fram­ing a “peo­ple strat­egy”, con­nect­ing the work­ing aca­demic with in­sti­tu­tional strat­egy.

When the con­cept of ap­praisal was first in­tro­duced in UK uni­ver­si­ties, as­sur­ances were widely given that it would not be linked to pro­mo­tion or ca­pa­bil­ity assess­ment. But Queen’s Uni­ver­sity Belfast, for in­stance, now warns that “or­di­nar­ily the nor­mal man­age­ment pro­cesses such as ap­praisal… are suf­fi­cient to man­age staff per­for­mance but in some cases an in­di­vid­ual will en­counter dif­fi­culty and fail con­sis­tently for no sat­is­fac­tory rea­son to meet the de­mands of their job”.

The Queen’s per­for­mance man­age­ment guide­lines are cur­rently “un­der re­view” and wor­ried aca­demics are ad­vised to con­tact an “HR busi­ness part­ner” in­stead. Here, un­doubt­edly, is one of the rea­sons why this com­plex of threats to aca­demic job se­cu­rity now goes so deep and so wide. Per­for­mance man­age­ment has be­come not an aca­demic but an HR re­spon­si­bil­ity.

The rep­u­ta­tional dam­age to in­sti­tu­tions that go down this route is in­sep­a­ra­ble from the dam­age to morale of aca­demic staff. A se­ri­ously wor­ried work­force that is hostage to their for­tune in ap­ply­ing for grants is not go­ing to be an as­set how­ever much money they man­age to “cap­ture”. And fo­cus­ing on the cost of re­search rather than its value will ul­ti­mately re­sult in every­one los­ing out as gov­ern­ments find bet­ter ways to spend tax­pay­ers’ money.

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