In higher education, we need to talk about performance

Mark Sterling tries to get beyond the discomfort involved in talking about maximising university performance.

Mark Sterling is Deputy Pro-Vice Chancellor (Staffing) at the University of Birmingham

Having spent over 20 years in academia, and having had the privilege of holding several leadership roles, I have seen much change – both change which I have led and change which has been imposed.

Like many, I harbour much regret at the loss of sector independence, but I have stopped being surprised. However, I never fail to be amazed that colleagues are surprised that change continues to happen – after all, our sector is composed of innovative people who by their very nature strive for excellence.

I do understand that sometimes my colleagues’ surprise and indigitation is a manifestation of their stress and anxieties. I also understand the increase in workload that change can bring.

But noting the challenges that face the sector, I believe that we need to reflect carefully on the skills that academics have and, above all, the academic culture within universities.

In the olden days

Traditionally, many academics have had a strong affinity to their discipline and a lesser affinity to their employer. Rather than working for a university, some academics work “at” a university – there is an almost implied notion of pseudo self-employment.

Does this really matter? I would argue that it does on a number of fronts, not least because academic careers are changing – the boundaries between academics and those who support the academic endeavour have started to blur. New career paths have developed which are essential for the long-term success of the sector, and agility has become key and is something that we should recognise and embrace.

The pandemic has demonstrated something that we always knew but rarely discussed openly – there are large parts of the sector which run on (or are held together by) the citizenship of our colleagues. If we want colleagues to pull together and reframe their view of what a career in academia means, we will need to ensure that we have suitable career frameworks in place that embrace (and reward) the myriad activities which academics undertake, and include promotion processes which embed the behaviours we value whilst at the same time levelling the playing field.

This is not easy to do. At Birmingham we have spent the last two years addressing this, seeking feedback and buy-in from all academic staff, the result of which has, on occasions, caused us to pause and re-develop our approach. Meaningful consultation on such fundamental issues is time consuming, hard work and for many emotive.

Help and support

I would also argue that we need to spend additional time helping our colleagues to flourish, giving them the skills and providing the opportunities which will act as a springboard to a successful career. Some universities are further down this road than others, but I believe as a sector this is what we need to do if we are to weather the potential and unanticipated storms ahead.

We also need to go further and embark on difficult conversations that are about working together to maximise the performance of our respective universities. The issue of pseudo self-employment needs to be viewed more as a partnership in which we are all pulling in one direction to increase performance, but sometimes the conversation is focussed on the personal – how often do our promotions systems and decisions encourage such behaviour and hence run counter to our values?

For those outside of the sector this is obvious, but for some even the language, let alone the notion is difficult to accept. Some are offended by the “management”’ concept of maximising performance and will argue that is not what universities are about. And as a result, we sometimes face periods of (public) infighting.

Having spent the last 18 months working closely with trade unions both on developing an academic framework of the type mentioned above and on health and safety, I am all too conscious of how quickly the best intended discussions can get out of hand and spill over into the public domain.

The outcome of such tends to be more entrenched views, increased anxiety levels, increased media attention (which ultimately sows the seeds for further erosion of our independence), and perhaps more importantly, a delayed solution to the actual issue at hand. Very few people like to wash their dirty linen in public, but there are certain parts of the sector which appear to take pride in doing this.

Who is “the university”?

In order to stop the erosion of sector independence we need to stop fighting amongst ourselves. Universities in this context should be interpreted as the people that work in them (“us”) as well as the often amorphous concept that colleagues correlate with the leaders of such institutions. In my experience colleagues are generally happy to blame this unidentifiable amorphous entity rather than accepting that the issues may, in part, be cultural.

I too have been guilty of blaming ‘“the university” or “the centre” on occasions – particularly at the start of my career where I could not see the bigger picture (even though I thought I could) and when I felt as if change had been thrust upon me rather than feeling I had ownership of the challenge (and solution), and when I felt that people did not understand or care.

I have learnt many things throughout my career, but the one I always try to remember is that everyone (at least everyone I have met) really cares about the sector and those who work in it – we are very good at hiding this fact sometimes.

To bring about real culture change will require considerable work on many fronts. We need to be clear about the support and training that is available to all, where the money will come from to pay for this support and importantly the expectations that come with such investment – everyone needs to pay back what they have received.

We need to be clear that the sector is judged largely on outputs and acknowledge that this needs to be reflected in all developmental reviews, whilst at the same time placing wellbeing at the heart of such discussions. We may even need to entertain changes to terms and conditions, statutes, and ordinances. In other words, we may need to have even more uncomfortable conversations.

We currently have a unique opportunity to set aside differences, invest in and reframe academic development and come together as a sector to bring about real cultural change. The only real question in my mind is whether we are willing to do so or whether we are still uncomfortable about talking about maximising performance – and would prefer to argue amongst ourselves.

One response to “In higher education, we need to talk about performance

  1. A good summary of some of the baked-in dysfunctionalities arising from the agency problems and the rent-seeking behaviour that goes on in HEIs, and in the context of weak governance – all as explored in cogent & painful detail in Robert Martin, The College Cost Disease (and also in an earlier book on the business model and cost-structure of the modern U). Core reading for HE managers – and for those who attempt to regulate HE!

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