Ever feel like Sisyphus with a spot of lumbago?

February 27, 2004

Then get your university to put its money where its mission mantra is and recognise its duty of care, says Valerie Atkinson.

Once upon a time, the university's higher echelons were approachable. If you were upset about something (like being expected to ink the Gestetner just after you'd treated yourself to a two-and-sixpenny manicure), you could knock on the vice-chancellor's door and be reasonably confident of an invitation to discuss reproductive techniques over a nice dry sherry. With any luck, you'd reel out hours later, with a warm sense of mattering and a determination to make inking your life's work. Nowadays, you are lucky (I use the word with irony) if you catch a glimpse of the top dogs, let alone secure an interview with one.

Nevertheless, universities acknowledge, nay insist, that they owe a duty of care to their staff and take it extremely seriously.

So how much does your university care for you? Does it bestow unconditional love, no matter how difficult you are? Or does it take you blindly for granted until you are at the door with your bags packed and then shower you with urgent, beauteous gifts, like the promotion you should have had three years ago? Or does it seem to make never-ending demands and then throw an ugly tantrum if you say no or question its behaviour?

Particular questions attract particular reactions. "A pension entitlement for every year you've worked? Sorry, not in your case." "The same salary as your male counterpart? In your dreams, sister." No one would actually say that, of course. Inequity is endured partly because it remains clothed in a cloak of corporate courtesy. But occasionally the seams fray, revealing the true nature of the institutional attitude to its more taxing constituents.

For some of my apparent impertinences, I have been accused of poking my nose in, of hyperbole and Meldrewism, and of trying to paint the university as a backstreet employer. Protesting too much? Which one of us would that be?

As the sector expands, duty of care becomes an abstract concept, dressed up in the meaningless language of mission statements and human-resource strategies. On the ground, things are tougher. Getting a remedy, or even an answer, to the most trivial of complaints can make you feel like Sisyphus with lumbago. Yet, on other occasions you receive an immediate sharp rebuff. By email.

The Hutton inquiry came about because a government employee allegedly cast doubt on the integrity of the organisation he served. In a chillingly simple analysis of the reaction of his employers, colleagues commented that "they saw him only as a problem". Clearly, that particular case was extraordinarily complex. Most university personnel will not confront a life-and-death dilemma. But the larger and more impersonal an establishment becomes, the more licence it has to behave with similar disapprobation towards employees who challenge the status quo.

So how do you get your university to put its money where its mission mantra is? Mine tells me that all staff are valued for their knowledge, skills, talents, flexibility, commitment, creativity, productiveness and service orientation. If yours is similarly gushing, you owe it to yourself to keep demanding appropriate remuneration and job satisfaction. If you fear you are regarded as a problem, console yourself with the thought that at least you are making an impact. As a long-serving individual, I believe I am still owed a duty of care, despite my unfortunate Meldrewish tendencies.

I would like to witness universities adhering to a commitment to reward excellent performance and dedicated service and to ensure justice and equity for all categories of staff. But while I'm waiting, I'll settle for a dry sherry and a little respect.

Valerie Atkinson is department administrator at the University of York.

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