Universities want better, but bullying won’t get them there

A recent email by a UK vice-chancellor is a case study in how not to inspire people to go beyond the call of duty, say two management scholars

October 5, 2022
Source: Getty (edited)

A few days ago, we were alerted to an email sent by a UK vice-chancellor to all staff over the summer. It started like this: “Put straightforwardly, our student experience scores reflected in the [National Student Survey] are terrible. Unacceptable. Yes, there are some exceptions. Yes, it is a flawed instrument. Yes, we educate a group of students with particular challenges and demands. These, however, are excuses and simply do not hold up.”

Not exactly inspiring reading ahead of a new term – especially for those keeping up with emails even when they are supposed to be on holiday. But perhaps this was just the preamble to a management mea culpa about unsustainable workloads and a lack of collegiate support? Not a bit of it. While the v-c recognises “the work that has been (and is being) put into addressing this situation, and the individual effort…something is still not working and part of that is the need for a sense of collective ownership and action”.

The bottom line is that “we cannot tolerate this any longer. It has to change, and change now. Radically. The next round of the NSS has to show massive improvement, and we need to keep improving.”

Just in case someone was still not getting it, the v-c goes on to suggest that while “it is easy to blame other people”, “it is your responsibility to make it change”, meaning “working for change across the system”. Unless this is done and “now”, “we will simply close programmes, […] whatever the consequences”, “we will place Departments into ‘special measures’”, and “when it comes to promotions, we will hold individuals to account for the student experience on the programmes they have a part in delivering”. 

Setting aside the flawed nature of the NSS as a mechanism of measurement and control, which this v-c acknowledges in passing, the email is simply poor management through and through. It is bullying, dismissive and purposefully ignorant of the context in which staff work and in which the NSS operates.

In our collective decades-long experience of UK universities, we have known perhaps a handful of colleagues who are openly dismissive of teaching. By contrast, we know many, many hundreds worked off their feet, balancing constantly increasing tasks, all with ever-decreasing levels of support. The implied staff indifference or sheer laziness is highly unlikely to be the explanation for “badly prepared teaching” and “ill-thought-out assessment”, not to mention “cursory feedback” and “not listening”.

Moreover, the idea that we are collectively responsible is only feasible if we collectively own the whole experience – which we don’t. Individual staff do not control scheduling of classes and rooms. Nor do they control the quality of tech support, or colleagues’ curricula or pedagogy, or whether those colleagues leave or get sick at the last minute.

As management professors, we know a little bit about leadership amid change. Put simply: if you want people to go beyond the call of duty – that is, use discretionary effort that is often not recognised in formal work allocation models – involve them purposefully. Communicate early and respectfully. Facilitate genuine ownership. Recognise good practice. Celebrate progress. Invest in support.

The belligerent tone of this v-c’s email will, at best, lead to surface-level compliance, with staff looking for any way out they can find. And no wonder – why would you give your best to an institution that does not give its best to you?

One of the reasons for the university’s poor student experience listed by the v-c was “lack of respect and kindness”. One wonders why staff, directed to provide it to others, are not afforded it themselves. We know that people reciprocate the attitudes and behaviours that senior managers show to them.

Of course, this email itself is only the ugly tip of the iceberg. It is another reminder of the misguided approach some university leaders have taken in their quest for continued improvement of their institutions. The damage the approaches have inflicted on the sector as a whole has been grave. A 2021 Education Support report found that 53 per cent of the 2,046 university staff it surveyed showed signs of probable depression, 62 per cent regularly worked more than 40 hours a week and 59 per cent hesitated to get support for fear of appearing “weak”. Bullying is rampant, as are declining wages, pensions and working conditions.

We also have plenty of evidence of the personal cost to individual staff of such management tactics. Stefan Grimm killed himself in 2014, after Imperial College London exerted undue pressure on him to secure more external funding. Malcolm Anderson took his own life after his managers at Cardiff University gave him 418 exam scripts to mark within a 20-day period – on top of other work.

While these are extreme examples, on the eve of yet another strike ballot, we know that colleagues across the sector are reporting acute levels of stress, made worse in too many cases by bad management. We know leaders can do better than this – we teach them how.

As the v-c put it, “none of this is rocket science”. Well, indeed.

The authors are two senior management academics who work in leading UK business schools and who wish to remain anonymous.

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Reader's comments (7)

Perhaps an unfortunate phrase? - ‘supposed to be on holiday’. Are the authors suggesting that the 22 weeks beyond the 30 weeks of term-time are all for ‘holiday’ - as opposed to some thereof being for teaching preparation, research activity, scholarship updating, whatever. From the perspective of Joe Public and anti-HE politicians it is already too easy for it to be assumed that academics work only in the relatively short term-time: those within the HE industry should not inadvertently encourage that misperception…
I doubt the authors are suggesting that, David. If anything, I imagine they are suggesting that after two years of pandemic working in which overwork/going beyond normal duties were institutionalised (in part because there was a genuine need to go online), staff could have well looked forward to some well-deserved rest in July following exam boards etc for the year are complete, only to receive a message like this that demands (not asks) even more. As for those assuming that academics barely work, I doubt this or any other insider account would make them change that opinion.
I'm not clear on how someone like this has risen to a senior management position. They just wrote an email that will cause their best staff to leave.
Who wrote the email? If they’re being very well paid from public funds (& yes, student loans are that as well as personal debt), then there’s a public interest in discotheque institution.
I'd hate to get job at that institute and find out it's being led by that weirdo. I think I'll check NSS scores before applying for that next promotion.
Changes in NSS rankings often reflect SMALL absolute changes in averaged student ratings. Changes in ratings so small that they fall within measurement error. It appears foolish to me to stress ENTIRE institutions and an entire sector on such random measurement errors and more foolish to change institutional polices that have an impact on staff workload and finance on such random small fluctuations. In addition, if VCs want to take credit for improvements in NSS ranking of their institutions (ala the outgoing VC for Hull), shouldn't they also take the blame for the poor NSS ranking? Works both ways VCs - the falling NSS ranking is your lack of competent leadership, VC - now do better for your leadership competence. Your email is an example of this lack of leadership competence - you clearly lead by bullying and harassment?
Must be fun if you're a retired but visiting academic (obviously not at the university here cos I didn't get the email) like myself and don't get paid. My reply, especially if I could have cc'd everyone else in it would have made most entertaining reading but would not have been polite.

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