Two out of three is just not enough

February 27, 2004

If it's promotion you're after, you need to make your mark in teaching, research and administration, reports Olga Wojtas, while Gerald Mars, with a nod to Francis Cornford, advises his nephew on how to find success as a young academic politician.

Graeme Morton and Owen Atkin are absolutely clear about why they sought promotion from lecturer to senior lecturer - it wasn't for the prestige, it was for the hard cash. Academic salaries have risen so little of late that it is becoming increasingly hard to sustain an adequate standard of living without getting a promotion.

"Money was very much the incentive," says Morton, an economic and social historian at Edinburgh University who was near the top of the lecturer scale. The senior lectureship did not bring a big pay rise, but Morton will now get incremental rises on the new scale rather than being bound by inflation - which is crucial in Edinburgh's expensive housing market, he says.

Atkin is a biologist at York University who was some two years away from the top of the lecturer scale. He says promotion has allowed him to move from a situation of being unable to save any money to having "a bit of slack".

Malcolm Keight, the deputy general secretary of the Association of University Teachers, believes that if staff feel fairly rewarded, many might be happy to stay in whatever post they were in. "But if the salary level is inadequate in an endemic way, everybody feels dissatisfied. One way of addressing that is to seek promotion," he says.

Funding pressures mean that institutions are limited in the number of promotions they can make, and the slow pace raises suspicions that deserving staff are held back for purely financial reasons. Staff who are disgruntled by their failure to move up the ranks can be even more aggrieved if they reckon the process is not transparent.

The AUT has not been inundated by complaints from branches about flawed promotion procedures in their institutions, Keight admits, but the union wants a more analytical grading structure that would allow explicit comparisons of expectations and demands between posts. At present, Keight says, each institution has its own procedures that are, in essence, based on what were national agreements of some 15 years ago.

These are broadly similar for the old and the new universities. The new universities had a tradition of certain course leader responsibilities counting towards promotion, but they have now shifted towards the old universities' pattern of promotion resting on the quality of individuals'

work. "I would suggest that in old universities there is a lack of parity of esteem given to teaching as opposed to research, and one of the things we welcome in the government's higher education bill is that that should change," Keight says.

Institutions increasingly stress the importance of teaching, but the capacity for judging excellence in teaching is arguably less well developed than it is in research. There are no central bodies overseeing promotion procedures, and institutions are sensitive about discussing them: several declined to speak to The Times Higher .

Like many other universities, Edinburgh and York eschew interviews in favour of detailed documentation. Might staff feel that this denies them an opportunity to shine and put their case in person? Eilidh Fraser, head of human resources policy and communication at Edinburgh, says that when academics were canvassed about job interviews, their views were inconclusive and there has been no pressure to introduce them.

Morton feels that his "interview" took place during his annual assessment by the head of department, and he felt no need for anything else. Nor did Atkin. "I'm not used to having interviews. We're used to applying for grants and fellowships primarily by documentation of where you are in your field."

Morton, who is 37, was promoted last year after he and his head of department agreed in his evaluation that it was the right time for him to apply. "We get an email at the start of every year informing us of the website where the regulations and the timetable are spelled out. Edinburgh has worked hard at openness about the criteria. It has an instruction sheet on what's looked for for each category of promotion, and human resources provides a lot of information on how to apply and what to put on your CV."

Even before Morton went for promotion, the criteria had given him a target to work towards, he says. He "notionally compared" himself with colleagues who had won promotion, chatting to senior colleagues about what activities were stressed in promotions panels. They confided that it was getting tougher to win promotion every year and that they had been promoted on much less demanding criteria.

The regulations, he says, called for a good performance in two out of the three areas of teaching, research and administration. "But really the word coming back is that they're looking for a good performance in all three - not necessarily an above-average performance, but certainly a level of consistency and length of time of doing things." Some colleagues were told by senior staff the areas they would have to concentrate on, such as preparing a monograph or taking on more administration. Morton says he spent a long time preparing his CV, basing his research case on work that would be recognised in the research assessment exercise and seeking citations to show his work's influence on others. "In teaching, it's a mixture of pulling your weight and the range and flexibility of teaching. I do a lot of graduate and open access-type teaching."

In administration, he had been a director of studies and had served on departmental and faculty computer committees. His head of department supported his application. Fraser says staff need not be supported by someone senior and can self-nominate, but a factual report is expected from the head of school on each applicant's work. He stresses that the documentation going to the promotions panel does not show whether the applicant self-nominated or not, but Morton notes: "Clearly, how you're perceived by colleagues is part of the unspoken procedure."

At Edinburgh, which is divided into three large US-style colleges, Morton's application went through a college review board and then to a university-wide review board made up of 14 senior staff chaired by the principal. "The college decides how many (promotions) it's going to support and ranks them, and then each college has its list ranked at university level. At that level, I don't know whether they cream the top off each listing."

Did he worry that decisions on his future were being made by people with no first-hand knowledge of his work? "It kind of works both ways. Maybe personal bias comes into play to begin with, but at a later stage it might become a much more neutral decision," he says.

"At readership level, there are external referees, but not at senior lecturer level as far as I know. The promotion very much depends on what is going on at the ground level at home, whereas for reader and professor you need a profile outside the university. There are a lot of external examiners who comment on our teaching at exam boards, and research is externally assessed for refereed publications."

Everybody at York self-nominates, sometimes at the suggestion of the head of department. Atkin, who is 39, asked when he arrived how long he would have to wait for promotion and was told about five years. He applied after four on the grounds that the procedure took a year or so. "To go to senior lecturer, you have to perform adequately in teaching, research and administration and make a significant contribution in two of those three," he says.

His administrative load had not been particularly heavy, but he added weight to his case by submitting new teaching material he had devised and letters of congratulation from managers who had noted the positive student feedback his teaching had won. He had also won four research grants worth a total of Pounds 500,000, had been invited to sit on editorial review boards for three journals and had been asked to attend international meetings in his discipline.

"The head of department writes a factual statement about what you've been doing in the department, which you see, and he also has to write a confidential report. In that one, I presume, he ranks you against other people in the department and says things you might not want to hear. That is where it becomes less transparent," he says.

He is concerned about the validity of the comparisons being made. First, a head of department might have to compare an ecologist publishing 20 papers a year with a molecular biologist who has published only one, but in the most prestigious journal. Then biology will be compared with chemistry, which may use different criteria. Atkin was happy with the factual letter from his head of department, but he did not know what weight this and the external references would have at university level. "At the end of the day, they're making qualitative decisions. Are they saying biology gets only one promotion a year?" he says.

But Keight remains determined: "What is required is an analytical grading structure against which promotions decisions can be made and understood by all - a more systematic approach in the way promotions committees reach their decisions."

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