University leaders can be quick to claim success if a strategy nudges an institution a few places up a league table ranking.
But a new study is hoping to capture the wider impact of performance management on staff, students and the university more generally, potentially offering a new perspective on whether audit-led change really produces positive results in higher education.
The study of Newcastle University’s Raising the Bar (RTB) initiative, in which research-active staff have been set “minimum expectations” for grant income, will explore how it alters academics’ working practices, well-being and approach to research.
Academics have been asked to keep diaries of their experiences of RTB and how it affects everything from applying for grants, publication strategies and efforts to recruit PhD students.
Its influence on staff-student relations, teaching, the university’s collegiate atmosphere and workload will also be recorded in an attempt to assess the “human dimension” of the initiative. If the project gets research funding, it would also involve a large-scale analysis of staff comments and institutional results up to 2021.
Inspiration: Martin Luther King
The project is led by Nick Megoran, lecturer in political geography at Newcastle, who has recruited what he calls a “stellar advisory board” of academics from the US, the UK and Europe to assist the impartial assessment of the much-criticised strategy.
Newcastle has said that the strategy to improve its standing ahead of the next research excellence framework “does not herald some new system of target-driven management”. Grant income targets and other performance indicators will be used as “reference points” for staff undergoing review, with 83 per cent of staff currently “on track” to meet research expectations, a spokeswoman added.
Dr Megoran, who is a university lay chaplain, said that he had "worked very hard to build relations with management" in order to lay the foundations for his research "and had various meetings with members of executive board, including the vice-chancellor himself”.
He said that his consensual approach to the project has been inspired by Martin Luther King, who visited Newcastle in 1967, having researched the work of the US civil rights leader. “Trying to get that balance of speaking truth to power, but doing so in love, is something important to me,” said Dr Megoran, adding that he was heartened by university management’s support for the potentially critical project and their commitment to academic freedom.
Dr Megoran believed the project, titled Working the Metricized Academy, will help to capture in a more systematic way the effects of RTB, which he says has “galvanised [many academics] in an unprecedented and striking display of opposition”.
“We’ve been hearing alarming reports across the university of people being told informally that they should think of moving elsewhere or switch to less favourable contracts,” he said.
“This research is conceived as a way of helping us record this, and think collectively about what is happening and whether we can do university governance differently.”
Since launching the project, he said that he had received a “flood of emails from around the UK and the world, people sharing their own bad experiences [of such management approaches] but also acts of resistance”. “This has struck a chord,” he said.
However, while an “explicitly scholarly critique” of a specific managerial project would be useful in analysing the impact of such an approach elsewhere, Dr Megoran said that he was just as open to the possibility that the RTB strategy may be positive.
“If the research discovers that the outcomes of RTB are positive…the Newcastle experience will serve a positive role in helping managers and scholars at other institutions negotiate neoliberalism by learning from the pioneering path set by Newcastle,” he said.
A spokesman for Newcastle has said that Raising the Bar represents a “multimillion-pound investment in strengthening research excellence”, which would enable the university to “recruit senior academic staff and improve research facilities and premises”.
The “ambitious programme” would allow Newcastle to invest in “areas where we have real strength”, with some £13 million being made available to support PhD students and early career researchers, the university said.