Bullying rife in RAE run-up

October 21, 2005

The research assessment exercise is a major cause of the bullying taking place at universities, a survey on bullying by The Times Higher suggests.

One in ten university staff who responded to the survey said the RAE was directly linked to bullying in the academic workplace, an analysis of the written feedback in the survey has revealed.

Many respondents alluded to big academic names or "RAE stars" brought in to boost the finances of departments and universities. Such stars seemed to be allowed to operate outside normal workplace rules, particularly when they brought large research grants with them, the survey found.

"The university is well aware of his behaviour but because he brings in significant grant income, will not act," one respondent said of a bullying academic.

Petra Boynton, the University College London psychologist who led the research, said that the data illustrated how far academics feel the RAE is to blame for bullying in higher education.

"Respondents said managers had threatened their careers by not returning them in the RAE or making them go in directions they didn't want to, so they did badly in the exercise. A lot of it's about bad management and people in senior positions who are under a lot of pressure."

Nearly 700 academics said that they had been bullied in some way, an online survey carried out by The Times Higher in June and July found. The bullying ranged from being shouted and sworn at in front of others to having promotion blocked and being isolated from colleagues.

Analysis of the written responses found that the RAE is perceived as putting increased pressure on university managers, which can lead to aggressive behaviour that filters down to departments.

Sue Harrington, a researcher on workplace bullying at the School of Psychology at Leicester University, said: "High pressure, high targets and competitive environments can lead to organisational bullying. Managers become much more task focused and autocratic and use behaviours that people perceive as bullying."

Many universities are more "aggressively focused" and competitive in the run-up to the 2008 RAE than during previous exercises, said Gillian Howie, a member of the Association of University Teachers' national executive.

She said: "There's an explicit bullying that comes with aggressive management and then an implicit effect where people are responding to the environment and are feeling the pressure of it."

The AUT is pushing for universities to implement and publicise the equality code of practice for academics outlined in the funding councils' guidelines to universities on submissions.

The final assessment criteria for the 2008 RAE are due to be published in January 2006.


'I was told I was a 1* and a no-counter...and made to feel worthless'

The upcoming research assessment exercise has exacerbated departmental pressures in one Russell Group university.

"There is a very insidious vapour that sits on top of the department and limits your ability to act freely as an academic," said Alex (not her real name).

To boost the department's performance, the dean outlined a number of areas in which academics must conduct their research or face being ostracised.

Alex was strongly advised to drop her research, which had been funded by smaller grants, because it did not fit comfortably with the school's themes.

"I was told in no uncertain terms that if it doesn't count towards the RAE, then don't bother with these little lots of money."

She was also, she says, "encouraged" to publish in big-name journals such as The Lancet .

Academics waste precious time trying to recalibrate work to fit the school's chosen areas of research so it appears to be valuable, she says.

Alex has been passed over for promotion. "It feels as if I'm being marginalised in my department - like a child in a playground who is not wearing the right clothes."

Her university recently held a mock RAE to gauge departmental standards but it turned into an individualised exercise and led to name-calling. "I was told I was a 1* and a no-counter. It lowers your self-esteem and you are made to feel worthless."

The university is trying to drag up its overall RAE score and "walking on bodies to get there", Alex says. Star researchers who were parachuted in to boost the overall RAE score are also problematic.

"They're brought in because of their research income but they do nothing to invest in future researchers. Sometimes they are so worked up and stressed that their behaviour is reprehensible. There's a hierarchy because of the RAE - counters, no-counters and stars and the power that goes with them.

"Some of us are looking to leave and they make it feel like good riddance."

anthea.lipsett@thes.co.uk

 

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