The promotion process needs bigger, better data if we’re to make it fairer

Enough of the tiny sample sizes at institutional level; if we want to really identify the issues that hold back careers, we need sector-wide figures and cooperation

Patrick Bailey's avatar
London South Bank University
29 Jul 2022
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Universities need bigger and better data on the promotions process

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Small wonder that the outcomes of the annual academic promotion rounds elicit such powerful emotions in universities across the UK. Academics do many things largely unjudged by their immediate peers, but promotion is the one process that directly compares colleagues with each other. The outcomes potentially highlight everything that the applicant might have felt hindered their career progression (workload, opportunities for research or leadership, promotion of “less worthy” colleagues), with the results bringing huge pleasure and a sense of worth to those who are successful but disappointment and/or disillusionment to those who are not.

Needless to say, it is really important we get it right; academics are only promoted a handful of times at most during their career, and the impact of getting it wrong can hit morale, staff relationships and even our students, who will quickly notice if senior academics lack diversity or tutors feel undervalued.

In an analysis that I carried out at one of my institutions, there was no statistical misalignment numerically concerning promotions by gender, or part-time versus full-time, but there was a substantially lower success rate for non-white applicants. And for some unsuccessful promotion cases, as chair of the promotions panel, I was accused of failing to address the issue. What I can say is that every single stage in every process that I’ve led has been totally fair and merit-based, as far as I could see but that doesn’t mean that our processes or systems are actually fair.

To appreciate the problem, I’d like you to put yourself in the shoes of an unsuccessful applicant, and then imagine yourself as chair of the promotions panel. The disappointed candidate receives feedback but won’t have seen the other applications; they have been told by colleagues that they are worthy of promotion, but they know they have a characteristic that is statistically less successful in promotion rounds (gender, race, age, sexual orientation). Unsurprisingly, they feel the system is biased against them. Meanwhile, the promotions panel chair is convinced that the process was totally fair and can see the shortcomings in the specific application, while being aware that some groups are less likely to be promoted than others when all the institution’s data are collated. It’s easy to see why this leads to division, frustration and distrust, even if there is much being done to try to ensure a merit-based process.

However, the key issue is that despite decades of work attempting to address inequalities, we still do not have sufficiently detailed data to be able to really identify the issues and start taking action.

There are three big problems with accessing the appropriate data. The first is that the subject differences are massive – for example, promotion to associate professor might be underpinned by 40 papers and £1 million of grants for research in a science discipline, while someone comparable in the arts might publish three monographs and win £20,000 of highly competitive grants. This means that one cannot simply compare academics from different disciplines using crude metrics. Although the promotion processes themselves do use subject-specific benchmarks (for example, from the Research Excellence Framework) and independent referees to try to achieve comparability across disciplines, so this isn’t an insurmountable problem.

Second, the number of promotion applications in any one year at a HE institution (about 60-80 for a university with 1,000 academics) is too small to allow in-depth analysis of grade and personal characteristics with statistical validity – there are typically only two or three applications for each academic grade within maybe seven to eight broad subject areas, so the data that include personal characteristics (such as gender, race, sexual orientation) tend to be crude, overall numbers lacking the necessary fine detail.

And third, the questions that need to be asked are complex and challenging, as we see if we track back through the promotion process to ask where inequalities might have arisen:

  1. Is the final panel biased?
  2. Are the referees biased?
  3. Are some applications badly written and, if so, how did that happen (assuming that plenty of guidance was provided)?
  4. Are some academics more likely to be encouraged to apply prematurely or be told that their applications are stronger than they are?
  5. Are some colleagues getting better opportunities to develop their career than others?
  6. Is there a tendency to appoint people from under-represented groups to more junior positions and then burden them with mundane tasks that hinder promotion?
  7. Are embedded social, educational or cultural factors that disadvantaging certain groups?
  8. Is our concept of excellence too narrow in scope to recognise the achievements of all academics?
  9. Is the job description written in a way that is inclusive to all skill sets and backgrounds?

These are undoubtedly difficult questions to answer, but isn’t that what academics are meant to be good at? And because it’s difficult, I think we’ve shirked our responsibility to really try to get to the bottom of inequalities in academic promotion.

It would require a group such as Universities UK to commission a detailed analysis of promotion outcomes across the whole UK university sector, including probing some of the key issues identified above – as well as HEIs agreeing to provide anonymised data. But what an impact we could have if, instead of having endless debates about the theory, or uncomfortable arguments about stereotypes and institutional bias, we could carry out a really high-quality, in-depth analysis across the sector and try to identify how we can finally ensure that academic promotions are truly merit-based.

Patrick Bailey is an independent HE consultant in education, leadership and sustainability. He is emeritus professor and honorary fellow at London South Bank University, where he was deputy vice-chancellor and provost from 2014-21.

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