Souls to Newcastle?

HR ‘success factors’ accused of imposing conformity of body and spirit that runs contrary to academy’s values. Melanie Newman reports

March 29, 2010

Newcastle University is recruiting and appraising its administrators according to a set of prescribed psychological attitudes and responses.

Newcastle’s “success factors” describe “what we believe to be the most important behaviours for all administrative and support staff”, the human resources department’s web page says. The success factors inform pay reviews, but “are concerned with how university employees go about their jobs rather than what they are expected to achieve”, it adds.

A professor of psychosocial studies says the list, which he describes as full of “Orwellian contradictions”, is part of a climate of intolerance towards staff who oppose changes in higher education.

Positive attitudes are deemed valuable, while staff who “express doubts and lack of confidence in themselves, others and the university” are said to have a “negative impact”, according to a document listing the success factors:

“The strict policing of personal attitudes, values and opinions at play in this document is worrying,” said Paul Stenner, professor of psychosocial studies at the University of Brighton. “Can an institution really oblige its employees to ‘disclose their own true thoughts and feelings to enable others to do the same’?”

He added: “The document appears to be designed to bring not just the body but also the soul, if I can be excused this expression, of the employee into conformity with the corporate image and espoused values of the university.”

The professor also highlights the document’s “Orwellian contradictions”: “The successful employee ‘is wary of assuming things’, yet a condition of their employment is that they unconditionally accept the assumption that change is always change for the best,” he said, pointing to propositions that staff should “accept change and run with it”, and “accept the reality and requirements of change as part of achieving organisational goals”, both listed as success factors.

“This is particularly worrying in a context in which it is no longer possible to deny degenerative changes in higher education,” he said.

According to the document, the best administrators build team spirit and work across teams. The worst “talk negatively about team members”, opt out of team activities and are “aloof and insular”. They “always have to have the final say”, are “defensive about their patches” and are domineering.

The HR web page says Newcastle uses similar documents for “strategic leaders”, and they are also being piloted for researchers.

“The idea going forward is to have something similar for all staff groups in the university,” it says.

A university spokesman said: “Newcastle University is proud to have developed success factors, in line with good practice that is well supported by research. Similar schemes exist across the public and private sector and in a number of other universities.

“The development of the success factors was overseen by a steering group, whose members included academics, and was the subject of a successful application to the Leadership Foundation for funding. Success factors have since received positive feedback from support staff and managers.

“The university presented details of the success factors at last year’s Association of University Administrators annual conference. As a result, the AUA decided to develop a generic model for other universities to adapt to their own circumstances, so that good practice can be spread across the sector.”

Dennis Hayes, professor of education at the University of Derby and founder of the campaigning group Academics for Academic Freedom, said the criteria for ineffective performance “almost describe an academic”.

People who “interrogate others to build up a case against them”, are “too long-winded in presentations” and who “attack other proposals in an attempt to promote their own” are described as a negative influence.

Top administrators create performance targets while bad ones “block or resist attempts to set targets or measure progress”. Those who are “only interested in promotion rather than development” are also said to be ineffective.

The HR site includes a question-and-answer section, which addresses a query about the subjective element of the scheme.

“There is always an element of subjectivity in any process dealing with people,” it replies. “However, success factors are objective standards or benchmarks with good examples.”

Another question asks what happens if the employee doesn’t agree that they should be judged on a particular attribute.

The university replies: “The manager uses the job-analysis information to determine the success factor for the role in conjunction with discussions with the individual. However, it is ultimately the manager’s decision.”

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