A scheme with merit

July 2, 1999

Peter Humphreys spells out why academics should be paid according to performance

I have been in my job at the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association for almost two years now. I am still surprised how a system of moving people up through pay increments and grades each year for 13 years or more continues to operate. United Kingdom higher education is world leading and a credit to those who work in it. Yet, as the British-owned motor cycle, shipbuilding and car industries have shown, the future is no respecter of past glories.

The outside world has moved on. Competition has driven it: demanding an approach to pay that encourages and rewards people who make a significant contribution and sends a message to those who do not. Relying on pay rises that are awarded merely for serving time has no place in today's world. Higher education is becoming an internationally competitive business and its pay structures should be organised accordingly.

I have been working for some 16 months with Sir Michael Bett on a committee to examine pay and conditions in universities and colleges. Last week we made 61 recommendations. Different people no doubt will like different bits. The recommendation on salaries says: "The pay structure for non-academic staff should include rewards for merit and achievement, responsibilities and acquired competencies, as well as valuing experience gained in the first few years of service in a grade."

This recognises that for all of us in a new job there is a period of learning the ropes. During this time paying increments related to the learning curve is appropriate and justified. The period will vary according to the nature of the job and the capability of the person. The time could be debated, but should it be 13 years or more?

Moving to performance-related pay is no easy option. The easy option is time service, where as long as the computer recognises another year has passed everything is all right. Merit pay demands that people know what they are supposed to be doing, are measured by how they are doing and are told of the results. There has to be a system that people understand. It requires commitment, time, training and communication.

Of course, there is always a risk of failure. The press are always saying how performance-related pay does not work. These stories have been running for so long that it is surprising anyone else is still out there to fail. The outside world has adapted and developed reward systems of all shapes to suit particular circumstances. We must do the same.

In fact we already have some relevant experience. Academic clinicians are part of the discretionary distinction awards structure operated by the National Health Service. And many senior management structures in individual universities operate merit pay in one form or another.

Pay is a huge proportion of higher education budgets, about 60 per cent. It is crucial to maximise the effectiveness of such a large part of our spending. Organisations send signals to people recognising their performance, and pay is an important signal but not the only one. Training and development is another. If pay levels in universities become more comparable with those in the outside world then we must adopt other relevant practices as well. Not just "cherrypick", but look at the whole picture.

In the coming months we will have to decide on the important issues raised by the Bett agenda. I hope that a move to a pay structure that rewards merit will not be dismissed as a result of the knee-jerk negativism surrounding so much of this subject.

Peter Humphreys is chief executive

at the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association

Should academics welcome or resist a move to performance-related pay? Email us on soapbox@thesis.co.uk

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