University staff have a wide range of terms for colleagues they think are at a "career plateau". These include "dead wood", "research inactive", "technologically inept", "hit the buffers" and "as useful as a chocolate teapot".
But institutions are doing little to help individuals realise their potential, according to a pilot study sparked by concerns over growing numbers who find themselves with little or no opportunity to progress professionally.
J. Keri Davies, formerly on the directorate of the Universities' and Colleges' Staff Development Agency, investigated a range of Scottish higher education institutions, funded by the Department for Education and Employment through The Higher Education Training Organisation.
He said that while pilot study conclusions were necessarily tentative, he found no sign of systematic attention being paid to managing staff performance.
"Everybody is committed to performance measures such as the research assessment exercise and teaching quality assessment, but these are global measurements of an institution, department or academic area."
There was no monitoring to allow an individual's underperformance to be quickly diagnosed and remedied. "How well one is managed is a matter of the luck of location within the institution. Managers receive little or no training and their effectiveness is not monitored.
"But I didn't come across anyone who didn't want to work in a university. Everybody wanted to work harder and be recognised and rewarded for it," said Mr Davies.
Staff were critical not so much
of individuals, but of structures they believed did not work, he said.
"Nobody could tell me that their manager or management process had helped their individual performance to get better."
Institutions had put an enormous amount of time into staff appraisal, but most staff seemed disenchanted with it because, for example, it had never taken place, it rarely took place, or there seemed to be no tangible result.
Improving Staff Performance in Higher Education by J. Keri Davies, is available for Pounds 9 from The Higher Education Training Organisation, at firstname.lastname@example.org