Academic reward in the firing line

Since becoming the country’s youngest vice chancellor in the country in 1989, Sir Colin Campbell has done much to put Nottingham University on the map. There is the new £50m Jubilee campus – complete with rolling lawns, lake, a solitary heron and award-winning architecture – and Nottingham has become a global university brand, with outposts in Malaysia, and (very soon) China. There are 10 students applying for every place, and growing prestige as a research base has brought new academic glitter Ð physicist Peter Mansfield won a Nobel Prize last year.

A legal philosopher by training, Campbell was seen as being at the forefront of a new managerial ethos in British universities in the 1990s. Emphasising greater central control and less autonomy for academics may have cost him friends at the Association of University Teachers (AUT), but it has won him others, not least those in the New Labour government.

Today, though, Campbell and his university find themselves in the newspapers for a new reason. If he gets his way, all Nottingham University staff Ð from porters to professors – are to have their pay decided on the basis of their performance.

Naturally, the AUT is implacably opposed to performance-related pay (PRP).

“The work of an academic can’t be measured and translated into a pay system,” argues Matt Waddup, the union’s campaigns officer. “Automatic progression [through an annual pay increment] protects intellectual freedom.”

Although yet to be formally proposed, the AUT has taken pre-emptive action against PRP and the new grading system planned at Nottingham. On 20 September this year, it announced that the university was to be ‘grey listed’ – meaning academics from all over the world would be asked to boycott Nottingham by not publishing articles, or not helping to mark exams.

The disruption so far has been “minimal”, according to the university’s director of HR, Richard Lee.

However, events in Nottingham are more significant than a local industrial relations squabble. Back in March this year, the Universities and Colleges Employers’ Association (UCEA) and higher education unions agreed a new pay deal that created a national pay framework. It also sought to bring in higher salaries and speedier progression for the gifted.

All universities must now introduce their own variations on the deal by August 2006. A couple have quietly done so. But many are waiting to see what happens in Nottingham.

At issue is the question of how far universities can tilt pay policy towards rewarding contribution and away from an entitlement to an annual rise – which some university HR directors perceive as a reward for getting older.

Higher education officialdom wants more performance pay.

“We think there are benefits for the sector as a whole [from PRP],” says Tracy Allan of the Higher Education Funding Council for England. The UCEA feels the same way, says Peter Thorpe, an adviser to the organisation. “We are wholly supportive of some greater emphasis on contribution,” he says.

To outsiders, the idea of trying to measure the performance of university dons might sound like a managerial atrocity. Is the line manager of Sir Peter Mansfield, Nottingham’s Nobel Prize-winning physicist, really going to sit down with him, review his targets, decide if he has met them, and give him a rating?

But Nottingham’s plans can be seen as part of a wider movement among universities. Many universities stress that academics are accountable employees as much as independent researchers, whose work is now measured in a variety of ways, from student feedback to the research assessment exercise – the process of evaluating the quality of research before public funds are dished out.

Academics are more managed than ever before. All agree that the age of the solo scholar, who retreats into a library and emerges 10 years later with a ground-breaking treatise, is truly over. ‘Collegiality’ is a favoured buzzword. But it is easy to see why the AUT fears Nottingham’s plans mark a new advance for managerial power, and a corresponding retreat for academic freedom.

Under the Nottingham proposals, all staff will have four performance ratings: 1 represents ‘unsatisfactory’; 2, ‘satisfactory’; 3, ‘above satisfactory’; and 4, ‘outstanding’. These ratings will be allotted on the basis of whether agreed targets are met at a performance review.

Those who get a level 1 will get nothing but a cost of living increase, level 2 and above, receive one, two or three additional salary points, and there is no right of appeal. The university estimates 5 per cent will be deemed ‘outstanding’.

For the university, the system represents a means of checking poor performance, which is something universities have been reticent about doing. It is also a way of rewarding staff that reach the top of their pay bands. Previously, it was not uncommon for able staff to get stuck at the top of a pay band and not be able to progress for years.

The discipline of performance reviews also underscore the idea that senior academics are managers themselves, who must take responsibility for running their departments.

Lee argues the idea of payment for contribution is not new. He says because ‘discretionary contribution points’ were available under the old system, the new proposals merely “expand” the performance element.

“Nottingham is known to be one of the best payers and promoters in the sector, and we are not about to impose some bureaucratic system that will deeply upset staff,” says Lee. “What this represents is a transparent, fair and open system.”

PRP in general has so far had a career of decidedly mixed success. According to Michael Armstrong and Helen Murlis’s widely used textbook, Reward Management, its advantages are that it may motivate staff, and that it links rewards to concrete objectives and achievements.

But there are disadvantages too. Its effect on motivation has always been dubious, it damages teamwork, focuses attention on outputs above quality, relies on subjective judgements, and it can be tricky to manage in practice.

As a result, the Hay Group consultancy, which is advising Nottingham University and works widely in the public sector, now argues that PRP is not about improving performance at all.

“The value of PRP is threefold,” says Marc Thompson, head of reward. “It communicates the importance of performance, ensures clarity of goals and helps manage the risk of equal pay claims, which is a big issue in higher education.”

Nevertheless, PRP is undergoing one of its periodic booms in popularity. New research from IRS shows that a quarter of all pay deals agreed to August 2004 had a performance element, so Nottingham University is not alone. But how could PRP affect academics in particular?

John Purcell, professor of HR management at Bath University, argues that inventing a performance regime for academics is quite easy. Academics could be evaluated as teachers through student reports and peer reviews; as researchers for the amount of journal articles they publish, allied to the journal’s prestige, and through an assessment of their work’s ‘impact’. They could also be evaluated as administrators Ð the number of undergraduates and PhD students they are responsible for, plus any committees they take part in Ð and as ‘corporate citizens’ measured by their contribution to the life of the university.

“Creating a performance management system is not difficult,” says Purcell. “Whether to attach pay to it is the dilemma. Normally in universities, people get their pay rises when they are promoted. Increases thereafter are always pretty small.”

Ian Kessler, fellow in HR at Templeton College, Oxford – and one of 11 specialist HR academics who have put their name to a report for the AUT condemning performance pay – is more concerned. “PRP is too crude to do justice to the complexity of an academic’s job,” he says.

The AUT report argues that PRP allows too much scope for managerial prejudice.

“Such discretion encourages an opaque system of rewards, which is likely to reinforce the inequalities that already pervade the higher education system. We have firm evidence showing that staff on fixed-term and part-time contracts rarely receive a full share of discretionary pay awards; and that wherever pay is locally determined, the gender and ethnicity pay gaps widen,” the report claims.

However, the AUT’s desire to make a stand against Nottingham University risks being undermined by wider developments – PRP is already a reality on other campuses.

Chris Gosling, HR director at Imperial College, London, which has opted out of the national pay agreement, says his university introduced PRP in January this year, but in a different format. For junior and middle-ranking staff, the system of increments has been retained. But among more senior academics, pay is awarded solely on the basis of a performance review. Around 95 per cent opted for the new system. An assimilation payment may have persuaded a few doubters, in preference to their old terms and conditions.

So why Nottingham? The spiky industrial relations climate may be part of the answer. The two sides have wildly differing interpretations of the terms of the national pay agreement. The union argues Nottingham’s proposals are incompatible with the national deal, which stated that “a normal expectation of annual progression” should be maintained.

For its part, the university believes the deal enables local freedom, provided staff agree to accept the proposals – whether individually or collectively.

But perhaps there is a deeper anxiety at work: if PRP takes off in top mainstream universities, it will be managers, not dons, who rule the roost. If that happens, the writing could be on the wall for collective bargaining in higher education.

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