I refuse to jump through hoops

April 13, 2007

Performance management won't make universities more effective, says Frank Furedi, instead it will distract academics from their work and breed institutional cynicism

Allow me to make two predictions. First, I predict that the performance-management systems introduced throughout the university sector are going to accelerate a decline in the quality of education. And, second, the sector's investment in a new army of human resources managers will have no positive benefits. On the contrary, as in the rest of the public sector, reorganisation will lead to more hoops to jump through and the growth of a cynical ethos of working to rule. More boxes will be ticked, more templates filled and we will all have to work harder - and all to no avail, for the quality of university life will diminish.

Colleagues have drawn the conclusion that the objective of performance-management systems is to institutionalise a coercive mechanism of control and monitoring of work. For example, the review of staff performance at Leeds Metropolitan University explicitly targets the behaviour of employees to facilitate the object of management control. Its emphasis on the management of behaviour follows US corporate culture, where employees automatically tell you to "have a nice day".

Colleagues also noted that the new performance-management systems placed staff under greater pressure and undermine the sense of autonomy associated with academic life. The new management fads will lead to the intensification of work. But this extra effort, along with the resources invested in the new management systems, will have no positive effect on performance. Perversely, it will have the unintended consequence of distracting academics from their work and breeding institutional cynicism.

Those who promote the new management fads fail to realise that academics are at their best when they are able to pursue their work in accordance with the demands of their subject matter and their students.

Many dimensions of academic work involve spontaneous engagement with colleagues through the establishment of informal quid pro quos. For example, when I started teaching as a sociologist I was often asked to give one-off lectures on history and literature courses on the subject of my speciality. This was not part of my job description but it was what I did as a member of an academic community. It is easy to forget that so many dimensions of our work cannot be reduced to the inane language of performance indicators: informal consultations with colleagues in other institutions, giving papers, advising strangers on research, refereeing papers and grant applications and so on. These are all essential parts of academic life that we perform voluntarily and that often involve a great expenditure of time.

The new performance-management systems aim to formalise the different elements of our professional life. Formal systems work reasonably well in the performance of technical functions such as flying an aircraft. But they become an obstacle to forms of activities that involve the cultivation of relationships and the pursuit and transmission of ideas. Worse still, the attempt to forge a shared corporate culture through the institutionalisation of "behavioural statements" violates the spirit of university life. The policing of individual academic behaviour will simply encourage a loss of authenticity and genuine commitment. Academics performing to the dictates of an alien script will at best become second-rate functionaries. There is an alternative to this mess - tear up the script and refuse to jump through the hoops.

Frank Furedi is professor of sociology at Kent University.

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