Stress test identifies remote management’s downsides

Institution’s senior management pledges to tackle ‘stress-inducing’ culture. Elizabeth Gibney reports

March 7, 2013

League table success at the University of Exeter may have been gained at the expense of staff, who claim to have experienced “undue stress”, “bullying”, sexism and a “loss of voice”, according to an internal report.


A group convened at the request of management and led by Nicky Britten, professor of applied healthcare research at the institution, has identified a “top-down management” culture as a source of problems at Exeter.

Based on 288 responses from the university’s 3,900 staff, the report says that many people found the senior management team remote, with major decisions being “made by a small group of people behind closed doors without consultation”.

“The tone of communication (described as ‘hectoring’) might have been appropriate for managing underperformance ten years ago, but is inappropriate now,” reads the report, which was presented to the university’s council, alongside the senior management’s response, on 21 February.

Many staff felt their opinions were ignored, “with no acknowledgment or feedback”, it adds.

The group also documents “some alarming reports of bullying, manipulative and unpleasant behaviour” by particular senior managers and a feeling among some that the university “is a self-perpetuating male-dominated culture” with policies such as maternity leave not taken seriously.

“There are reports of men making casual sexist remarks…referring to women as ‘girls’, promoting men over women (despite the women having equal or better CVs),” it adds.

The investigation was initiated after the university’s wider staff survey of 2012, which found that 36 per cent reported feeling unduly stressed, compared with a benchmark figure at universities conducting the same survey of 28 per cent.

The survey also found that only 60 per cent said they felt able to voice opinions, compared with a sector benchmark of 76 per cent.

Exeter vice-chancellor Sir Steve Smith told Times Higher Education that senior management would respond to the concerns identified by the group, and in many cases had already made changes.

Expanding student numbers and raising Exeter from an average ranking position of 34th in the UK during the 1990s to the top 10 today had meant being “very centralist”, he said. However, efforts were now being made to try to reverse this.

Exeter had already reinstated academic heads of discipline to decision- making positions on the university’s college executives and was on a recruitment drive that would reduce workloads, he said.

“I could have written to staff saying ‘we’ve got the [2012] survey results and we did better [than] or the same [as the benchmark] in 17 out of 25 [areas]’, but the truth is I know that there are tensions…We’re trying to be as open as possible,” Sir Steve said. The problem would now be working out how widespread the concerns were and whether or not they were historical, he added.

However, co-president of the Exeter branch of the University and College Union, Jo Melling, said the union felt that senior management’s response did “not meet the needs outlined” by the group.

“In particular, we are concerned that the vice-chancellor’s executive group has not recognised the issue about voice and governance that the group clearly flagged up,” he said, pointing to recommendations that the university commission an independent review of distribution of power within the institution.

Management has said that the university’s governance will be assessed in 2014 as part of its regular five-yearly reviews.

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