Performance management is performance mismanagement

Research will suffer from the collapse of professional development into financially fixated assessments of ‘capability’, say Gill Evans and Dorothy Bishop 

October 4, 2018
Illustration of man climbing up graph
Source: Luke Brookes

The University of Salford’s recent dismissal of a professor of Italian politics for failing to meet performance targets – notably a requirement to “capture” the required amount of grant money – marks another step down the UK university sector’s road to perdition.

This journey will end not only with rock-bottom morale and mental health among academic staff, but also with eviscerated universities and scholarship. And, as Brexit bites and competition for students increases, it is a journey that is likely only to accelerate.

At the heart of the problem is the collapse of the pastoral into the judicial when it comes to the management of academic performance. A system that is portrayed as existing to “develop” staff now tends to include the setting of targets, with the promise of “support” if these are not met. That mutates into “warnings” about “performance”, and leads finally to a “capability” dismissal that is procedurally indistinguishable from the one followed in disciplinary cases.

This evolution of the “personal development review” into the “performance development review” can occur without the institution even consciously recognising it. This is illustrated in the surprisingly frank comments that managers at one university gave a PhD student exploring performance management a decade ago. One said: “Performance management is, for me, about all members of staff contributing to the overall corporate strategic objectives.” But academics’ contracts are unlikely to state that duty – or, indeed, a duty to bring in sufficient income to pay their own salary, as universities are increasingly insisting on. 

The impact on individual academics at the sharp end of this can be extreme. Stefan Grimm killed himself in September 2014 because he had been informed that he was failing to meet “the metrics of a professorial post at Imperial College” around grant capture. In a posthumously sent email, Grimm said: “I was never informed about this before and cannot remember that this is part of my contract with the college”.

Using grant capture as a criterion of an academic’s worth will create a sense of both injustice and helplessness since the number of high-quality grant proposals greatly exceeds the amount of funding available – to the extent that some funders are now adopting a lottery approach.

Grimm’s case also illustrates a common management ignorance about the procedural requirements of dismissal. Grimm was told that his head of department was about to “sack” him, but the 1988 Education Reform Act makes clear that dismissal is lawful only after a lengthy and elaborate procedure.

Imperial’s current capability procedure, reviewed after Grimm’s suicide, defines “capability issues” as failures to meet “the acceptable level of performance…in terms of the quantity and quality of work, despite genuine effort”. But “quantity” and “quality” are nowhere stated to include grant capture.

The Salford and Imperial examples involve targeted individuals. But we also see a kind of batch processing of academics via redundancy procedures. These carry complex legal requirements but it is not proving difficult for universities to create plausible “business plans” or institutional “strategies” involving the reorganisation of departments following decisions to cease to teach or research in particular subjects.

Once a category of “necessary redundancies” is established, selection of individuals can lawfully follow, and challenges in tribunals have tended to fail. The practice is threatening the presumption that “permanent contracts” – increasingly rare anyway – should be honoured until retirement.

A focus on grant income is particularly inappropriate in the Salford case. Humanities research is often solitary, requiring distortion to make it look as though it needs more staff, space and equipment. Salford’s performance management of its professors is also particularly draconian in its arrangements for the pastoral to slide into the judicial. But the institution is not alone in framing a “people strategy”, connecting the working academic with institutional strategy.

When the concept of appraisal was first introduced in UK universities, assurances were widely given that it would not be linked to promotion or capability assessment. But Queen’s University Belfast, for instance, now warns that “ordinarily the normal management processes such as appraisal…are sufficient to manage staff performance but in some cases an individual will encounter difficulty and fail consistently for no satisfactory reason to meet the demands of their job”.

The Queen’s performance management guidelines are currently “under review” and worried academics are advised to contact an “HR business partner” instead. Here, undoubtedly, is one of the reasons why this complex of threats to academic job security now goes so deep and so wide. Performance management has become not an academic but an HR responsibility.

The reputational damage to institutions that go down this route is inseparable from the damage to morale of academic staff. A seriously worried workforce that is hostage to their fortune in applying for grants is not going to be an asset however much money they manage to “capture”. And focusing on the cost of research rather than its value will ultimately result in everyone losing out as governments find better ways to spend taxpayers’ money.

Dorothy Bishop is professor of developmental neuropsychology at the University of Oxford and Gill R. Evans is emeritus professor of medieval theology and intellectual history at the University of Cambridge.

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Print headline: The judicial now usurps the pastoral in managing performance

Reader's comments (1)

The system needs reforming. We should ditch all the ranks (retaining them only as honorary titles for exemplary achievements) and move to a base rate reflecting contractually agreed delivery of core tasks (teaching, scholarship, service) with increments based on years of service and then annual bonuses based on research income as well as other valued activities such as outputs, social responsibility, knowledge transfer etc (the rules can be set by institutions rather than sector-wide encouraging competition for labour) . Currently, promotions are based on performance during a review window with the expectation that a given trajectory will continue or accelerate even, but past performance may not predict future performance, which should be continuously appraised for remuneration purposes. Moreover, you may well have two academics ostensibly contributing/achieving the same in a year (same teaching load, grant income, outputs, etc) but with vastly different pay. This seems anomalous with the tenets of equal pay. With the suggested reform, you can continue to manage individuals' performances to aspire to the highest level but academics will be more secure in their jobs as long as they continue to deliver their core duties. It will also inject healthy competition into the system.

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