University support staff are complaining of a huge rise in cases of bullying. Is a hierarchical environment to blame? Harriet Swain reports
Jane (not her real name) can no longer face going into the university where she has worked for 14 years. "The thought of walking into the building was making me feel ill," she says. "I couldn't sleep. I couldn't eat. I was taking medication. I felt unable to function. Even filling in a simple form seemed impossible. I had begun to doubt everything I did."
With several other administrative and clerical staff in her department, she has now taken out a grievance procedure against her boss, and is on long-term leave after months of enduring treatment that she says was persistently, if subtly, undermining.
She and the other affected staff would find work taken away from them without explanation, meetings held without them and workloads increased to impossible levels. "I would come back from leave to find I hadn't a computer or printer and someone else was sitting at my desk," she says.
Unsuccessful attempts by her boss to make her a scapegoat for serious mistakes that she claims were made by a more senior colleague led to staff with whom she had previously worked and socialised walking past her in corridors.
While grievance procedures are relatively rare, subtle bullying of administrative and other support staff in universities is not. The union representing these staff, Unison, has become so concerned about the increase in reports of bullying that it has commissioned research into the issue, which will include guidelines on how to deal with it.
The research, due to be published later this year, is drawn from a nationwide study of bullying across different organisations. It found that more than 20 per cent of respondents from all levels of higher education had experienced persistent and long-term bullying in the past five years - more than 7 per cent in the past six months. Sixty-three per cent had been bullied by a manager and 51 per cent by a colleague. The report states:
"Research has shown that it is difficult to stay neutral in cases of bullying. It is therefore possible that colleagues, who may fear becoming targets themselves, may decide not to get involved and may seem, in the eyes of the target, to take the side of the bully."
Helge Hoel, lecturer in change management at the Manchester School of Management, University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology, and author of the report, says: "People in higher education have a much more pressurised and competitive environment than they used to have. Quite a number of higher education institutions have become more hierarchical and managerialist when before they were run along a more collegiate structure.
With that, people have more power and that means more power to push through their own agendas."
What has also changed is the increase in the amount of administrative work expected of universities. Leaving detailed paper trails to meet tougher quality assurance and audit demands, to ensure data protection and health and safety rules are met, to implement new information systems, to prove that research and teaching is on target and that student development plans are in order, all takes time. While in the past many academics had personal assistants to do much of their basic secretarial work, this is now rarely the case: new technology, for example, has made it possible for them to write their own references and letters. All this means that departmental secretaries in particular are expected to take on much higher-level administrative tasks than they did in the past, including drawing up budgets, dealing with exams or research reports, and even organising entire degree course programmes. Iain Colquhoun, Unison branch secretary at Sheffield Hallam University, says: "If I had to pick a group within the university, then secretaries would be the ones bullied the most. They are the most likely to suffer because of the stresses on managers transmitting themselves to staff."
As heads of department change every few years - and admissions tutors more often - secretaries are often the only reservoir of long-term information and are continually called on to induct new members of staff into the ways of a department. Beverley Skeggs, head of the department of sociology at the University of Manchester, says there has also been a delegation of responsibility. "Academics are passing on jobs because they cannot do it all themselves. They cannot pass on their research, so secretaries become the last level to which everything else is passed down." She accuses some academics of "studied incompetence". "They are very good at writing books and sometimes at teaching but they learn to be useless at administration, and secretaries are carrying the burden."
Ann Conley, postgraduate secretary at Manchester, says that while course directors are nominally responsible for each of the masters programmes she is involved with, most of the decisions and arrangements are down to her. "The academics are just there for the signature on the final stage." However, she praises her new boss for taking time to get to grips with the administrative side of the department, but says it probably won't improve her boss's career prospects. Teaching and research earn much more recognition.
Increasing student numbers have also added to the amount of pressure on secretaries and other administrative staff. And students' attitudes have changed. The more they are expected to pay, the more they expect to be treated as customers and to have their needs met quickly. And widening participation means that they are coming with more diverse needs: "non-traditional" students, for example, may need more attention and advice.
Conley's colleague Joanne Johnson, a first-year undergraduate secretary at Manchester, says she sometimes faces tricky behaviour from students wanting instant help, often because they have failed to manage their time. She and fellow secretaries have set firm rules about the tasks that they may acceptably be asked to do, both by students and staff. Photocopying and taking calls are unacceptable, for example.
But many are not this forthright. They may see the job as one that it is possible to do part time and combine with family life and are afraid of rocking the boat. Promotion or a salary increase in recognition of extra responsibilities has to be approved by university personnel departments, and is notoriously difficult to achieve. While it may be relatively easy for a university to see the benefits in terms of increased research assessment exercise money or student fees, or of retaining a top academic, it is harder to make the case for administrative staff.
"I'm happy to have a job, to be quite honest," Conley says. She adds that she has complained about the problem of increasing workloads several times "but there doesn't seem to be much that can be done about it".
But Alan Bolton, general manager at Leeds University Business School and author of Managing the Academic Unit , says secretarial and administrative staff are often being stretched beyond what is a reasonable workload, and sometimes beyond their capabilities. When they respond well to the extra responsibilities and manage to achieve promotion, this can be positive for both them and overall morale. If promotion does not happen, or if someone else is brought in over the existing secretary, then it can be demotivating and can be seen as bullying.
Many university secretarial staff have long been campaigning, with some success, for their extra responsibilities to be recognised by regrading to bring them in line, in senior positions, with academic-related staff. In old universities most secretaries are on grade three, where top pay is just under £16,400, with some on grade four, with a pay ceiling of just under £19,000. Even the most senior secretaries, on grade six, which is rarely used, and where the top rate is discretionary, cannot earn more than £25,451.
And then there is sex discrimination. University secretarial and administrative staff are overwhelmingly female. In Hoel's survey for Unison, 10 per cent of women respondents reported being targets of bullying, compared with just 4 per cent of men. This was the most surprising finding in the study since in the general sample, more men than women reported being subject to negative behaviour. Hoel suggests that it may be because women in higher education are more aware than those in other sectors of what constitutes unacceptable behaviour and more prepared to label it as bullying.
Martin Stanton, consultant staff counsellor and mediator at University College London, says it is important to remember that perceptions of what constitutes bullying can differ substantially from person to person.
Managers, he says, often do not realise they are seen as bullying or poor at listening. "They are stuck in their offices wrestling with their own problems and staff outside perceive them as being remote."
Nevertheless, Unison argues that in cases where relations have broken down, it is usually the more junior staff member who is considered expendable. A union spokeswoman says: "It is often the person who has been bullied who ends up leaving - perhaps with a settlement - but certainly not in a way that is a positive or good example of how to deal with bullying."
Probably the most high-profile case involved Bonnie Tall, a secretary in the chancellor's office at Portsmouth University. She reported her boss after being asked by him to put through fraudulent expense claims. She was forced to resign before he did, although she was eventually awarded £10,000 in a case of constructive dismissal. His own severance pay was a lot more generous. Unison's Colquhoun says that difficulties in a particular department often repeat themselves with successive junior staff leaving or being moved and it is only when the senior person finally goes that the matter is resolved.
Whatever the complexities of defining bullying, and however it is eventually resolved, the effects can be devastating. One woman administrator reports that her confidence was so sapped that she had to be given a menial job until she felt able to take on something more suited to her abilities. Another says she was once a particularly outgoing person but is now only able to go out shopping or to the hairdresser by herself, seven years after the bullying stopped, and despite having worked happily for many years in another post.
Jane says that she is disgusted with her sick record because she has always worked. "I know I can do things, but I have got to the stage now where I cannot even apply for another job because I couldn't get through the interview process," she says. "It has totally destroyed my self worth."