Managing academic performance

By Richard Black|June 15, 2015|Research|15 comments

A recent and fascinating piece in the THE by Rob Briner sets out how he feels universities are ‘mismanaging performance’. This week – and the preceding 18 months for that matter – academic performance has been very much on my mind. SOAS Academic Board has just approved a new ‘academic performance framework, the development of which I have led through a string of working groups and extensive negotiation with UCU

Of course, if we aspire to excellence then we need – as academics – to ‘perform’ that excellence. Brilliant ideas are no good if they stay in my head – I need to share them, whether in the classroom, through academic publications, or through other forms of ‘output’ or ‘impact’. Excellence is what all universities seek to reward, whether in the form of first-class degrees for our students, or promotions and academic titles for our staff.

All that implies we have the capacity to recognise excellent performance when we see it, even if the press is less than sure that all firsts and 2i’s in universities are really worth the name, and academics will sometimes wonder whether academic promotion panels make the right decisions. But can we ‘manage’ academic performance? And if so, how?

Certainly the starting position of many of my academic colleagues is that academic performance cannot be managed – or at least not easily. The risks of attempts at management are brought out well in Rob Briner’s piece, as well as a more recent report in the THE following the death of an Imperial academic who had missed his grant income target for the year.

In particular, Briner bemoans the adoption of ‘best practice’ from private sector businesses. Goal and target setting, a useful technique in some contexts, is too often translated in the University context into vague, complex, hard, or ‘just plain impossible to achieve’ objectives, over too long a timescale and in a format that is demotivating rather than motivating. This, Briner says, does little to boost performance and, worse, can ‘make academics feel failures’.

Talking to my colleagues, this story rings true. Many talk about ‘changing goalposts’, of long hours spent doing what are perceived as ‘pointless tasks’ with little or no reward. A frequent response is that we need to manage workloads rather than performance. As a father of a young child, I have plenty of sympathy with that.

Yet ‘performance’ is not workload – it is not about how much effort we put in, but about what we get out. When I did my undergraduate degree, marks were never awarded based on how long students spent in the Library (the lawyers and medics would all have graduated with first class honours on that measure!). Then, and now, the extent to which my research, writing and teaching is valued and taken seriously depends on whether I have been able to say something new and/or interesting. And that is important – for all universities.

So how can universities encourage and support academics to perform better? And how can university administrations foster an academic environment in which both teaching and research are more consistently ‘excellent’? One, moreover, where the presence of those who genuinely struggle to produce excellent research or teaching does not undermine the wider reputation of an institution, to the detriment of both students and colleagues?

The Academic Performance Framework that has been agreed this week at SOAS is an honest attempt to answer these questions. Across the three areas of teaching & learning, research & enterprise, and administration, management & outreach, it sets out what the School can reasonably expect from all staff as a minimum, but also what relevant committees are implicitly or explicitly looking for in terms of ‘excellence’ when it comes to promotion, accelerated increments or one-off reward payments.

Too often, such criteria are defined only in the vaguest of terms. For example, our School’s current rules require interpretation of what the difference is between an ‘important’ contribution to the advancement of a discipline (Reader) and an ‘outstanding’ contribution (Professor). And on teaching, our promotion procedures talk only of ‘innovation’ without saying what that is. This vagueness leaves academics confused about what they should prioritise and angered when a committee does not agree with their understanding of what a teaching innovation or outstanding contribution to research actually is.

It is possible to be more specific. Every historian I have ever spoken to across the five institutions in which I’ve worked or studied understands that each promotion essentially comes as a result of the publication of a good quality monograph. Yet becoming more specific in this kind of way also carries myriad pitfalls. Economists or scientists don’t write monographs (on the whole), and aren’t likely to be promoted if they do – in other words, such recognition is subject-specific. And spelling out what is expected can introduce targets that are utterly unreasonable and/or have perverse effects, especially if targets for teaching excellence are added to those for research.

Take the example of research income – in the news this week that one in six universities in the UK have introduced individual performance targets for research income. Such individualised targets are clear and specific, but simply unreasonable in a context where two thirds of well-written and worthwhile research proposals are rejected by most funding bodies.

An alternative is a target for the volume or value of research grant applications, which at least is in the control of the individual academic. But this creates the risk that poorly thought out applications will be submitted simply to meet a target. The result is to waste the time of the funder and peer reviewers; it does not create the outcome that the university is seeking to achieve.

The proposed solution at SOAS, and one that we will be implementing in the coming year, is to combine income and application targets for Departments (where there is scope across 20-30 academics for a degree of success and failure) with an expectation that all staff regularly submit applications that have passed internal peer review – so that there is at least some measure of quality involved.

In turn, actually securing a grant – especially a larger grant (the framework spells out what we think that is) is seen explicitly as a measure of achievement, something that can and should count towards promotion and reward. That was not always clear in our previous system – for some staff, writing that next book would always take precedence over securing the funding that might allow that writing to happen.

Academic performance is one of the most important issues facing university administrations in a sector that is increasingly competitive – for research funding, for students, and indeed in other ways. It is important for individual academics too – we all want to work in an environment where our colleagues are creative, engaged and motivated, all possibly synonyms for ‘excellent’.

Our experience over the past 18 months at SOAS shows we can have a conversation about this and try to chart a way forward. We may not have all the answers – indeed, on evidence of teaching excellence, we will continue the conversation next term. And of course, it will take time to find out if we have got it right!

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