Personnel heads cool on rush for promotion

March 24, 2006

Framework hopes are likely to be dashed, finds Tony Tysome

Hopes of brighter promotion prospects for academics as a new pay and grading structure rolls out are likely to be dashed, The Times Higher has found.

Nearly all university personnel managers who took part in a Times Higher poll said they did not expect academics to be promoted when universities adopt the new national pay framework agreement and job evaluation exercise, which aims to usher in a more transparent system for determining grades and pay by the autumn.

Academic union leaders and university employers' representatives, who have been pressing institutions to complete negotiations on the framework agreement, expressed disappointment and surprise at the poll's findings.

Union leaders said they had expected that modernising pay and grades would soon lead to hundreds of academics across the sector being promoted.

There were hopes that the new system would help relieve bottlenecks in the promotion scale, particularly in the step to senior lecturer in old universities or principal lecturer in new universities. Such bottlenecks are said to hamper the career prospects of staff who have, in effect, been doing the job of an academic on a higher grade without getting promoted or receiving higher pay.

But most of the personnel heads who responded to the poll indicated that the framework agreement would have little impact on promotions. The Times Higher contacted 15 heads of personnel at a range of academic institutions.

Adrian Buckley, assistant director of personnel at Birmingham University, said: "We may have to revisit our promotions criteria in the light of the framework agreement. But I don't think it will mean big changes or many staff getting promoted."

Rebecca Hewitson, human resources manager at the University of Central Lancashire, said: "I don't think there is going to be much change.

Academics will probably get salary increases, but we do not think there will be many promotions as a direct result of the framework."

Some warned that the current pay dispute could hold up or scupper the introduction of the framework agreement in institutions where negotiations continue over its adoption.

Stephen Cooper, personnel director at Exeter University, warned that extra income from top-up fees earmarked to help cover the "substantial" cost of implementing the agreement could not be spent twice.

"If the pay negotiations result in the kind of settlement the Association of University Teachers is seeking, implementing the framework will become rather more challenging," he said.

Jocelyn Prudence, chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Employers' Association, suggested that personnel officers may have been trying to "manage staff expectations" in their response to the poll.

She said it was expected that significantly more staff would be upgraded than downgraded as the framework agreement took effect on campuses.

But she added: "There is no doubt that if the dispute becomes difficult and protracted, it could get in the way of concluding negotiations over the framework in some institutions."

Rachel Curley, AUT assistant general secretary, said she was "disappointed" by the personnel heads' response.

"We might not see enormous increases in promotion immediately, but one would expect a more transparent system would mean hundreds of promotions across the sector," she said.

Steven French, vice-president of the AUT at Leeds University, where talks are under way about how staff promotions will be affected by the framework, said: "If it turns out that the framework agreement leads to hardly any promotions, then we will be left wondering 'what was the point?'"

Pay gap continues to frustrate female staff

The framework agreement alone will not be enough to ensure that female academics get equal pay for equal work compared with their male colleagues, according to a Nottingham University dean who has conducted a study into pay inequality.

Academic union leaders argue that the agreement should make it easier for women to challenge unequal pay and unfair decisions not to promote them because job evaluation should clarify which grades and pay individual academics should be on.

Rachel Curley, assistant general secretary of the Association of University Teachers, said: "If an individual can prove they meet the requirements of the profile of a grade above their own, institutions will no longer be able to use artificial promotions criteria to prevent them from moving up."

But Christine Ennew, dean of law and social sciences at Nottingham, said moving to the framework would not help if it meant staff simply being moved from one pay spine to another.

"If a female academic is already significantly underpaid relative to equivalent male academics, transferring across to a new spine will not help that. That is why we need more than just a framework agreement," she said.

Professor Ennew's study found that the pay of female academics at Nottingham lagged behind their male counterparts by an average of 3.8 per cent.

"It could be to do with lifestyle choices, discrimination or women for some reason not performing as well. We will use the information we have to look further into it and address any imbalances in the next salary round," she said.

Children and hard choices slow women's rise

Promotion to the position of reader in social science and health at Leicester University last month was the latest stepping stone in a career that Mary Dixon-Woods feels has been relatively unimpeded by gender issues.

But she believes that most female academics are at a disadvantage as they climb the promotions ladder, often because of childcare responsibilities and the lifestyle choices they make rather than direct discrimination.

She said: "Frequently, the period during which academics need to be generating high-quality publications and going to conferences to make important outside contacts coincides with the time when many women are having children. My experience is that institutions are very keen to encourage women, but female academics are more inclined than men to make choices that are not necessarily about valuing promotion over everything."

Dr Dixon-Woods said she expected institutions to tread carefully, but she hoped the framework agreement could resolve pent-up frustration. "What upsets people most is where there are obscure promotion processes and they feel they have been judged unfairly," she said.

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