Autonomy falls prey to performance culture

March 23, 2007

Staff complain of 'insidious control-freakery' as Leeds Met moves to set standards for attitudes, commitment and behaviour. Phil Baty reports

Leeds Metropolitan University has angered academics with a plan to impose a set of "attitudes and behaviours" that include an expectation that staff will "go the extra mile" and will have a "shared identity".

The move to link ideal staff attributes to pay under a performance-review system was attacked this week as an act of "totalitarian" management.

Critics said it "denies the basic premise of what a university is" - a community of independent scholars.

Leeds Met's insistence that it was, like many other universities, simply improving its performance management systems has served to raise national concerns about the general loss of academics' traditional and cherished autonomy over their working lives.

Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, said: "Lecturers are highly motivated and committed professionals who do an incredible job that rarely gets the recognition or respect it deserves.

"Staff should be trusted and allowed to just get on with their jobs. However, unnecessary outside influence, arbitrary targets and an excessive admin overload are all having a devastating effect. Why any institution would choose to exacerbate rather than to address these problems is beyond me."

Leeds Met is developing a "competency framework" as part of a bigger review of its staff performance and development structures. A "discussion paper", Developing a Culture of High Performance at Leeds Met , passed to The Times Higher , says "sustained organisational change will be effected through establishing what behaviours and values we expect staff to demonstrate in everything they do".

It continues: "By ensuring that staff are recruited, developed, assessed and rewarded in relation to a set of core behaviours, we can align individual performance and organisational culture."

The "behavioural statements" would be "embedded" into recruitment, staff development, performance review and "reward" - that is, linked to pay through access to performance-based "contribution points" at the top of job grades.

The paper is accompanied by a document headed Leeds Met ACTs - Attitudes, Character and Talents That Leeds Met Looks for in Effective Staff Performance . Under "commitment", it says that staff should "go the extra mile"; under "student-centred" that staff should "exceed expectations"; and under "courtesy/respect" that they should be "co-operative" and have a "shared identity".

In a local UCU e-mail discussion, one senior lecturer wrote: "These concepts can quickly be used by management as a stick to beat us with. In general I find the document rather clumsy and vague - far too vague for me to feel safe about. We need to avoid a system whereby we become parrots speaking and dancing Leeds Met marketing speak in order to progress."

Another said: "It seems... as if this is just a way to pick people off who don't fit the Leeds Met mould... Very insidious and very scary."

Adrian Jones, UCU national official, said: "When a general tries to lead his troops from behind, prodding them with a bayonet, they're likely to turn around and point their guns the other way. These new documents are extraordinary: they'll have no blessing from staff organisations because our members will see control-freakery in them."

A Leeds Met spokesperson said: "The university, in common with other universities, is developing a framework that will assess and recognise the wider contribution staff make at work. Such a scheme is already in place for senior managers.

"These proposals will be the subject of consultation with staff and recognised trades unions and, in discussions so far, we have has positive responses from managers and staff. We believe the vast majority of staff will engage constructively with the consultation, and we will reflect carefully on the comments they make."

'There's no place left to hide'

Advances in communications technology have broken down the last bastion of academic retreat from the demands of managers and students - the scholarly archive, according to Nick Evans (pictured), a lecturer in modern slavery studies at Hull University.

"You can now get an e-mail to anyone right in the heart of the national history archive in London.

"In the past, you could not check your e-mails there. But now, everyone knows there is wi-fi access that you can access from your laptop.

It means the last bastion of your freedom to conduct academic work undisturbed has gone," he said.

The development, combined with more use of mobile phones, leaves academics in a situation where they can find it hard to clear time to do some research without interruptions, he said.

"You could say, 'Just don't pick up your e-mails.' But then that can mean you come back to an e-mail inbox that is full. So, inevitably, you do pick up those messages, and they form a distraction.

"The old excuse that you are away from your desk no longer applies. You are contactable at any time, anywhere in the world," he said.

Another change is that managers, and particularly students, may expect a quick response to any messages they have left.

"It's almost as if, because they have contacted you electronically, they expect an instantaneous response. You can feel that if you don't respond right away they will think you are somehow lax. Once you do respond, it often leads to follow-up queries."

'I had to work through the night'

The pressure of being constantly "on call" at work and at home drove Liz Bowe to resign from her job as a ceramics lecturer.

She gave up her post two years ago after suffering from stress-related illness when a constantly full e-mail inbox and endless telephone interruptions left her working full-time hours in what was meant to be a part-time job.

She said: "I had a manager who would call me on a Sunday to tell me about jobs that needed to be done in the week. Any time she knew I wasn't teaching, she would call me - it was a nightmare."

Ms Bowe said she had calls from managers during clearing asking her to deal with applications, even though this was not part of her job description.

Students would also call her at home with queries.

"It got to the point where I was having to work through the night to get all my teaching preparation done. I felt it was expected that I would always have my mobile switched on. My e-mail inbox seemed to be constantly full," she added.

The "grossly intrusive" use of e-mails, texts and mobile phone calls and messages by managers and students made it hard to get on with her own work, she said.


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