Why I... am a victim of 'quality suffering'

March 12, 2004

On the way to work the other week I was worrying about who would be on the picket line and what abuse I would be subjected to for my determination to work during the strike. For nothing. Not a single employee was there to demand my brotherly support. I'm sure I could have been persuaded to lay down tools for the day.

Reaching my office, I hoped I could do some work and avoid the cadre of Woftams (waste of ****ing time and money) that are increasingly part of my normal routine. The phone rang. It was Andy, the non-militant teaching coordinator. The psychos were complaining that their second-year students didn't do well enough on the questions we set. I pointed out that they did even worse than the final marks indicated - the university regulations stipulated that only students who wrote nothing or something irrelevant should be given nought, so we had to re-mark. And the external examiner had pointed out that her faculty no longer sets "compare and contrast" questions until the final year because the students can't do them. I reminded Andy that the answers under scrutiny had failed to address the question and deserved nought. The reiteration of a word or two from the question did not warrant 20 per cent of the marks. I know, I know, he sighed, but the university doesn't want any low scores to impact on final degree marks. We're even expected to teach them English now, where necessary. This could be "quality suffering", I ventured.

I looked at my email. There was an urgent message from the deputy director of personnel regarding strike action. He extolled the generous pay offer and the revised salary structure, then pointed out the extent of the financial penalties the university would visit on anyone engaging in industrial action. I considered the carefully crafted message, the efficient reasoning - an incongruous contrast to the delayed contracts, the misplaced paperwork and the unchecked credentials we experienced at the hands of his department. Could this be quality suffering?

Jimmy, a graduate technician, knocked on the door. Under the new "incentivised" pay structure he and I have to fill out a form defining tasks, goals and assessment criteria for the next three months. Examples of goals include independent rig assembly and welding equipment maintenance. I thought - shipbuilding? We don't build ships here. I promised to cobble something together: it could be crucial for Jimmy to avoid financial disadvantage. The university advertised the post with a £6,000 margin for performance-related pay awards. If the goals were set right, he could get a chunk of that. Jimmy didn't want quality suffering.

I checked my email. Even though I had had a technician poached by a colleague, I was expected to follow new procedures to the letter. This included a "Salary Recommendation Progression Form" and as I was "the line manager responsible for a member of staff transferring to a different role" (note jargonese suggesting I drove her away), I had to complete an "outgoing performance review meeting" and fill in another form . I was experiencing quality suffering.

Another email, subject "performance reward strategy". There was a short, slightly cryptic message and an attachment. When I opened the attachment, the screen announced an automatic revision of my salary based on answers to the following questions. I clicked the "Next" button. Two more buttons labelled "Yes" and "No", and the question, "Do you deserve a reward?" I tried to click "Yes", but as soon as the arrow touched its perimeter, the button jumped to another part of the screen. I tried again. Finally, I clicked "No". The screen changed immediately. "Thank you! You may resume your duties." I clicked despondently on the "send form" button and received instant confirmation that my salary had been fixed, as requested.

Rob Fletcher*
Professor of biomedicine
Russell Group university

*The author's name has been changed

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