Cambridge slated for being too soft on staff

September 17, 2004

Managers at Cambridge University are unwilling to deal with underperforming staff adequately, an internal report for the university suggests.

The review concluded there is a "widespread perception" that the personnel department is too cautious in handling some academics and administrators, "leading to negative consequences for the staff as a whole".

The review team, consisting of four professors, a librarian and a former director of personnel at Imperial College London, said: "Submissions (to the review) revealed a widespread perception that the (personnel) division is risk-averse, especially in cases involving individual underperforming members of staff... This does not mean the individual's rights should be neglected, but the division needs to acknowledge the university's position more directly."

The internal report concluded that decisions about staff had to be taken in the light of "experience and the current state of employment law and practice", but said that "the efficiency of the university's teaching and research should be the primary consideration".

Credit was given in the report to the department for making "substantial" progress in improving the university's personnel systems since it was established in 1999, when three separate administrative offices were merged.

But it concluded that the department's "management and performance must be improved" and that an additional assistant director should be appointed.

The university declined to comment on the report before a meeting of Regent House, Cambridge's 3,000-strong governing body, in October.

However, according to university sources, the risk-averse approach reflects, in part, concerns about the cost and "unpredictable" outcome of employment tribunals.

In a formal "self-assessment" of the department, Peter Deer, Cambridge director of personnel, says that progress has been made in moving to "a service culture of 'can do' rather than 'can't do'".

But he adds: "Within the university things are not always as joined up as they might be - (there is) a disassociation of policy-making from management, a lack of coordination in decision-making, sometimes poor internal communication, a lack of clarity about relationships in senior roles and of a clear delineation of responsibilities... and between the 'centre' and institutions. The appointment of pro vice-chancellors may well address some of these issues."

His concludes that personnel "is sometimes the fall guy" by being at the end of the line in many processes involving staff, and that its work was hampered by the need for more resources.

He says the department has revised or introduced new staffing procedures for promotion, regrading and appraisals, and ensured the university's compliance with changes in employment law.

Recruitment and retention of staff has been helped by abolition of university assistant lectureships and the creation of university senior lectureships, as well as improvements in advertising and relocation packages.

The internal review team concluded that pensions, payroll and the occupational health sections of the university should be brought within the remit of the personnel department.

A new "comprehensive" computer system for the department would be needed if a "satisfactory service" was to be delivered, the team said.

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