Academics at Birmingham's School of Health Sciences feel 'failed' by senior management who, a leaked report shows, were slow to address 'rock-bottom morale' and a 'culture of fear'. Phil Baty dissects the bones of contention.
"I have the sense of a school that is divided, where many staff feel isolated and unfairly treated... "Everyone is aware of the tension, pressure, even anger that exists between different groups and individuals".
This is the conclusion of a report on Birmingham University's School of Health Sciences that is so sensitive that the university refused to even confirm its existence when The Times Higher asked to see it under the Freedom of Information Act.
The report, which was leaked to The Times Higher this week, paints a damning picture of a school at war. It raises serious questions about the state of personnel management at the university and the future of the school.
Stuart Hunt, a human resources consultant, produced the report, which was handed to staff in the school in August 2006. It reports the results of a consultation exercise that involved 22 staff in "focus groups" and one-to-one interviews at the school and "several" further direct contributions to Mr Hunt.
The local branch of the University and College Union had suggested that disgruntled staff boycotted the consultation for fear of victimisation, but the paper, however, concludes that an "excellent level of engagement... should mean that the findings... are valid".
The report identifies a number of "key issues". "Leadership and management style is at the heart of much of the unhappiness that was expressed by the majority of respondents," it says.
A clear split emerges between a minority of staff - described as an "inner circle" - who are happy in their work and a majority who feel bullied, isolated and discriminated against.
The report says that although some staff felt recruitment processes to be "reasonably sound", many others found them to be "flawed". Staff expressed "deep concern about the fairness and transparency" of the promotions process.
They also said favouritism was shown in the allocation of tasks, the granting of permission to attend conferences and the handling of promotion opportunities.
The management was said to be supportive by some staff, but many more felt that the systems and the management style were "much too controlling, even punishing". The report says: "Although several staff explicitly said they had not experienced or witnessed bullying, many more comments contradicted this."
Some staff said feedback and performance management were "punitive", and nearly all considered communications to be poor.
The school, founded in 1995, combines nursing and physiotherapy. For most all of its time, it has been headed by Pat Wrightson, a professor of physiotherapy. It has 63 academic staff and 22 academic-related and support staff who are responsible for more than 500 undergraduate students, 87 taught postgraduates and 15 postgraduate research students.
Nursing received a 3b rating in the 2001 research assessment exercise. The Hunt report highlighted staff fears that the school's problems could further damage its profile and even threaten its survival in a university committed to top-rated research.
Staff blamed high workloads for cutting into research time. The report says some staff felt that teaching and administration was valued more highly than research.
"There is significant concern about personal job security and about the future of the school as a whole, especially in relation to the vice-chancellor's statements about (the need for) research excellence," Hunt says.
The report highlights major staff concerns about five general aspects of work - leadership, professional and career development, communications, management, recruitment and promotion. In each of these areas, between 75 per cent and 90 per cent of all comments made were "negative".
These areas, the report said, "should be seen as highly significant to address".
The university this week released a statement to The Times Higher in which it said that the consultation and meetings with staff have allowed the university to "develop additional responses to address staff concerns".
In particular, "leadership training" for staff at various levels has been implemented.
Staff in the school were due to meet Mr Hunt this week, as The Times Higher went to press, to agree "some key actions" to help develop "a framework for collegiate leadership" in the school, according to a leaked memo.
The Hunt report concludes: "Finally, nearly half of respondents made comments relating to the sense that the university centrally has not supported the school... effectively."
Certainly, the university had clear warnings of the emerging crisis. In October 2005 - almost a year before the Hunt report and as Professor Wrightson's second five-year term of office was coming towards an end - 17 members of academic staff wrote to the head of personnel, Jane Usherwood, raising concerns about how the school was being managed.
The letter, which was followed by a similar one in summer 2006 to the vice-chancellor, stated explicitly that it would not be "appropriate" to reappoint Professor Wrightson because of a number of "significant concerns about the current management style and the relationships within the school, which have led to inequitable workload distribution and inconsistent promotion decisions".
It reported that 12 staff had resigned in the previous three years - six of them "within the last few months" - and referred to "widespread concern that we may not be able to deliver existing courses, nor that we will be returnable in the next RAE". But as the Hunt report noted almost a year later, five staff asked: "What happened to the letter... there was no response, no feedback."
A major warning - described by one staff member as a "huge emergency siren" - came in the form of an October 2005 staff "stress survey" that highlighted the same issues as Hunt, but almost a year earlier. This survey, obtained by The Times Higher under the Freedom of Information Act, showed staff reporting "a culture of fear" and "rock-bottom morale" in health sciences.
Some 47 staff in the school, including 41 academics, participated in the survey. They reported that promotion and job opportunities were "unfair", that the school suffered from a "blaming culture" and an "unrewarding social climate", and that they suffered "low autonomy, insufficient participation and a sense of lack of control". The report, by consultants Applied Research Limited, recommended an "urgent" investigation into allegations of bullying and favouritism and said that "organisational interventions... are urgently required".
But nine months after the survey was completed, the Birmingham UCU was bemoaning the lack of action. A submission from the Birmingham UCU to a July 10, 2006, meeting of the university stress review group said: "It is no exaggeration to say that UCU members in health sciences are at the end of their tethers. They are asking how much more time it takes for the university to act to address the problem."
In the same month, 15 school staff complained in a letter to the vice-chancellor of a "lack of strategic planning", a "climate of low morale" and "raised stress levels".
Michael Clarke, the vice-principal, replied 18 days later, on July 28, rejecting their request for a meeting but saying that the vice chancellor would "take into consideration" their views about leadership when deciding on the future headship of the school.
Just four days after that, Professor Clarke told the school: "Professor Wrightson has agreed to continue as head of the school. Both Pat and the vice chancellor recognise there are significant issues to be resolved...
about the future direction of the school." This should be taken forward by staff "working constructively together". But Professor Wrightson's new term would run only until March 31, 2007, he said.
In a statement this week, the UCU branch said that it had been aware of "serious problems" in the school for several years.
It said: "Some of our members in the school have been off work with stress-related illnesses, and many of them have been afraid to raise their concerns with the university for fear of victimisation.
"Members have also expressed anxiety about their future careers because the perceived absence of a clear research strategy has apparently made the prospect of an RAE return in this round unlikely."
As one member of staff who did not want to be named said: "The university has failed us. They had the stress survey and did nothing for a year. Then they sent in a consultant to find out what the problem was when they knew the problem all along.
"It is very sad. There is a lot of enthusiasm and ability and potential, but we've just been ground into the ground."
"You don't get promoted unless you are part of the 'favoured few' and your face fits." Eight people shared these sentiments.
"My sense is that everything is designed to support the 'inner circle'."
The report said that this term was "used by several people".
"Criteria for promotion are fixed so that only certain individuals can meet them". Five people expressed this view.
"Some people are allowed to go to international events and others are not - this is a favouritism issue." Four staff repeated such sentiments.
"We are desperate for help. We are vacillating between despair and anger."
"There has to be a change in leadership."
Source: the Hunt report
THE BIRMINGHAM RESPONSE IN FULL
"Birmingham University, as a responsible employer, conducts periodic reviews of stress in its schools. As a result of findings of the 2005 stress survey in the School of Health Sciences, the university, in consultation with the school, commissioned a further review from an independent consultant.
"This was intended to provide a more detailed insight into issues raised in the original survey. The university considers the results of both to be confidential, other than to its senior management group and the appropriate staff in the school concerned.
"The findings of both reviews and meetings with staff have enabled the university to develop additional responses to address staff concerns. One such response is to implement a package of leadership training for differing levels throughout the school.
"The university has every confidence in Professor Pat Wrightson, the head of school, who was recently reappointed by council following the normal procedure of consultation with the school.
"The university will not comment further on specific personal cases."
Professor Wrightson declined to add any additional comments beyond the university's official response.
Register to continue
Get a month's unlimited access to THE content online. Just register and complete your career summary.
Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:
- Sign up for the editor's highlights
- Receive World University Rankings news first
- Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
- Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Or subscribe for unlimited access to:
- Unlimited access to news, views, insights & reviews
- Digital editions
- Digital access to THE’s university and college rankings analysis
- Unrestricted access to the UK and global edition of the THE app on IOS, Android and Kindle Fire
Already registered or a current subscriber? Sign in now