Bonus culture sweeps sector

October 13, 2006

77% of universities introduce performance-related pay and sanctions for underachievers. Phil Baty reports.

Corporate-style cash bonuses for top-performing academics and sanctions against underachievers are arriving in UK universities in a human resources revolution that will put the performance of academics at work under unprecedented scrutiny.

A survey of 129 higher education institutions by the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association shows that 77 per cent of universities are already introducing some element of performance-related pay. Only 6 per cent have ruled out PRP.

The survey,* released exclusively to The Times Higher , reveals that 81 per cent of universities are introducing new improved "performance management" systems or are considering introducing them to help identify the best - and worst - staff.

With the carrots offered to high achievers, often worth several thousand pounds, come sticks for the underperformers.

"Beyond the recognition that you need good systematic arrangements in place to identify really good performance is the recognition of the need for good systems to identify those who need a bit more training and development, instead of just waiting until they are found to be unsatisfactory and have to be eased out of the door," said Peter Thorpe, senior adviser to Ucea.

The survey, which looked at how universities were implementing the 2004 Framework Agreement reforms to modernise pay and career structures, found that many were introducing an array of performance-related measures.

Some 68 per cent had or were planning to introduce a performance-related pay system to cover all staff, with a further 9 per cent planning one for at least some groups of staff.

Some 16 per cent are yet to decide. Ucea said that "the great majority" of institutions would have PRP systems operating within the next year.

Some 42 per cent of universities said they planned to offer bonuses "off spine". These would be one-off cash bonus payments not made in the form of additional increments up the pay spine.

Some 48 per cent would offer progress up the pay spine as a reward, but 16 per cent of these said that the progress would not be automatically "consolidated" so the benefits would not continue year after year.

Tony Strike, head of human resources at Southampton University, said that his institution offered staff performance-related pay increments.

Southampton also offers a system of one-off cash rewards, worth up to 10 per cent of salary, and an additional ten to 12 staff a year receive a special vice-chancellor's award.

But Mr Strike said: "There is a flip side. Appraisal recognises both good and poor performance."

The University and College Union is monitoring universities' use of contribution points and other performance-based increments.

Roger Kline, UCU head of equality, said that PRP systems tended to rely too much on the personal discretion of line managers and were a recipe for discrimination and favouritism.

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