Exeter’s rankings success gained at staff’s expense

Management pledges to tackle ‘stress-inducing’ culture. By Elizabeth Gibney

March 7, 2013

Source: Alamy

Nothing left to say: some staff at Exeter have reported a ‘bullying’ management style that has left them ‘without a voice’

League table success at the University of Exeter may have been gained at the expense of staff, who claim to have experienced “undue stress”, “bullying”, sexism and a “loss of voice”, according to an internal report.

A group convened at the request of management and led by Nicky Britten, professor of applied healthcare research at the institution, has identified a “top-down management” culture as a source of problems at Exeter.

Based on 288 responses from the university’s 3,900 staff, the report says that many people found the senior management team remote, with major decisions being “made by a small group of people behind closed doors without consultation”.

“The tone of communication (described as ‘hectoring’) might have been appropriate for managing underperformance ten years ago, but is inappropriate now,” reads the report, which was presented to the university’s council, alongside the senior management’s response, on 21 February.

Many staff felt their opinions were ignored, “with no acknowledgment or feedback”, it adds.

The group also documents “some alarming reports of bullying, manipulative and unpleasant behaviour” by particular senior managers and a feeling among some that the university “is a self-perpetuating male-dominated culture” with policies such as maternity leave not taken seriously.

“There are reports of men making casual sexist remarks…referring to women as ‘girls’, promoting men over women (despite the women having equal or better CVs),” it adds.

The investigation was initiated after the university’s wider staff survey of 2012, which found that 36 per cent reported feeling unduly stressed, compared with a benchmark figure at universities conducting the same survey of 28 per cent.

The survey also found that only 60 per cent said they felt able to voice opinions, compared with a sector benchmark of 76 per cent.

Exeter vice-chancellor Sir Steve Smith told Times Higher Education that senior management would respond to the concerns identified by the group, and in many cases had already made changes.

Expanding student numbers and raising Exeter from an average ranking position of 34th in the UK during the 1990s to the top 10 today had meant being “very centralist”, he said. However, efforts were now being made to try to reverse this.

Exeter had already reinstated academic heads of discipline to decision- making positions on the university’s college executives and was on a recruitment drive that would reduce workloads, he said.

“I could have written to staff saying ‘we’ve got the [2012] survey results and we did better [than] or the same [as the benchmark] in 17 out of 25 [areas]’, but the truth is I know that there are tensions…We’re trying to be as open as possible,” Sir Steve said. The problem would now be working out how widespread the concerns were and whether or not they were historical, he added.

However, co-president of the Exeter branch of the University and College Union, Jo Melling, said the union felt that senior management’s response did “not meet the needs outlined” by the group.

“In particular, we are concerned that the vice-chancellor’s executive group has not recognised the issue about voice and governance that the group clearly flagged up,” he said, pointing to recommendations that the university commission an independent review of distribution of power within the institution.

Management has said that the university’s governance will be assessed in 2014 as part of its regular five-yearly reviews.


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Reader's comments (2)

The idea of centralization implies there is control. If that were the case workload would be fairly divided and there would be no staff free of some elements of responsibility. My vicarious experience of Exeter was that this is not the case. There can be some senior lecturers with up to 25 PHDs to supervise while others have barely any. Staff being employed because they contribute to the RAE without any thought as to which courses they may effectively teach on - if any. Senior teaching fellows (men) being paid more than senior lecturers (women) even they they have no programme administration functions. Hours allocations for PG work being constantly downgraded (eg 50 hours for running a complex PG programme, hours allocated for supervision) while more and more admin work is added outside the hours grid. Exeter is good example of how hierarchical, top down management fails to work as top managers become distant from their colleagues and as very ambitious admin people (usually men, but not always) start to take control.
I rephrase from "Robins: 50 years later" published in nearby pages Principles of why we need Higher Education that most people of a liberal mind can stand behind even 50 years later: to teach skills; to produce cultivated men and women; to maintain research in balance with teaching; and to promote common standards of citizenship. Exeter sounds like Hell. The School of Biological and Chemical Sciences at Queen Mary received an infusion of this culture when a former manager of Exeter joined as "Head". What is the human cost? What is the cost to decency, fair play, progress, freedom of research, generosity? How do we wish our next generation of Citizens to be educated? What does it mean to be cultivated? Balance? Perhaps Exeter, Queen Mary and the like are doing well in teaching survival skills. In Hell.


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