'Activity profiles' give full exposure

Sensitive data on performance may be made openly available to colleagues. Melanie Newman reports

June 11, 2009

Academics at the University of Leeds face the prospect of sensitive information about key aspects of their performance being shared openly with colleagues.

Leeds is planning to draw up "activity profiles" of all its academics to benchmark their work. The profiles would include research and teaching data such as grant income, student-feedback scores and information on third-stream activities.

If the plan is approved by Leeds' senate this week, the information will be accessible to all staff at the departmental level, with the scheme being piloted this year and next.

Managers have justified the profiles - which the University and College Union has strongly opposed - by arguing that there are currently wide variations in how academics' data is stored, accessed and used.

They say the profiles would give staff more control over information representing their activity, which they would be able to use when applying for promotions.

They add that if the scheme does not go ahead, inconsistent practices may damage morale and collegiality, and academics' time could be wasted on duplicated processes.

However, the university has also acknowledged the risks involved, including academics using the information to put pressure on colleagues.

There is concern that the profiles could create perverse incentives - for example, if the scores based on student feedback are better for academics with higher teaching loads, it might act as an incentive to keep student-to-staff ratios high.

A UCU spokeswoman said the purpose of the profiles was unclear, but they were likely to be abused. She said the metrics Leeds wanted to employ were inappropriate and added that the profiles were a "crude attempt to introduce performance-management measures".

The plan to be debated by the senate includes measures based on "crude numerical metrics" derived from student-satisfaction surveys, with nothing to gauge knowledge-transfer activity, the spokeswoman said.

"It identifies dangers of abuse, but claims that transparency can somehow reduce these dangers to a minimum ... it seems that we are set on a collision course," she added.

The university said: "Academic activity profiles are not for 'performance management', and in any case are already available to heads of school."

The scheme is part of wider reform proposals, including replacing the title of "senior lecturer" with "associate professor" and scrapping the "reader" grade. The UCU also opposes these changes, describing them as "unpopular and unnecessary". A plan to replace lecturerships with assistant professorships has been scrapped.

melanie.newman@tsleducation.com.

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