I didn’t expect to be blogging again on this topic so soon, but …
We are still a week away from the date when universities have to upload their REF submissions to the HEFCE website, and Lancaster University seems already to be taking steps to “manage” the research of those staff members whose work it has deemed of insufficient quality to include in the submission—despite widespread criticism in the national educational press and elsewhere about the processes used to judge quality in “internal REF” exercises.
By way of background, all Lancaster University employees have for some years been required to undergo a formal annual “Professional and Development Review” (PDR), whose objectives the university defines as follows:
“Throughout the year staff and their managers should be engaged in regular discussions about work, involving ongoing and constructive feedback and coaching. The formal Performance and Development Review (PDR) meeting, held annually, is a focused discussion that draws together the threads of these conversations, provides the opportunity to reflect, clarify expectations and standards and agree current and future performance and development needs, leading to production of appropriate plans.”
In most academic departments (unlike in other units) PDR reviewers include a number of senior faculty, because it is recognized that “it may not be feasible for the Head of Department alone to conduct all the reviews.” In the History Department in recent years, PDR responsibilities have been divided among the professoriate, with some attempt being made to match areas of research interest wherever possible between the reviewers and the reviewed.
Apparently heads of department within the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS) have now been told to take personal responsibility for the PDRs of all staff not returned in REF 2014, with the aim of ensuring that they will be returned in REF 2020.
Now this is curious. Because earlier this summer, following discussions with the UCU, management posted the following statement on the university website:
“Career progression of staff will not be affected and there will not be any contractual changes or instigation of formal performance management procedures solely on the basis of not being submitted for REF2014” (my emphasis).
I have pointed out before that this falls a long way short of an absolute guarantee that the evaluations of individuals’ research outputs arrived at through the “Mock REF” process would not be used to their detriment by the university in other contexts in the future. I take no pleasure in being proved right.
Notwithstanding the university’s assurances, those excluded from the REF are now to be singled out as a group and treated differently from their colleagues solely as a result of that exclusion. Unlike their colleagues, whose PDRs will continue to be of a more collegial kind, they will be subject for at least the next six years to formalized and ongoing annual surveillance by their line manager, in an objectives-defining and monitoring process whose overriding goal has become production of work that can be included in the 2020 REF.
These are undeniably “formal performance management procedures” in all but name, which clearly violate the spirit—if not, indeed, the letter—of the agreements arrived at with the UCU and publicly stated on the university’s website. They also threaten to undermine a balance that has always been integral to the whole conception of the PDR at Lancaster, which is also set out on the HR website:
“The context for discussing and agreeing individual objectives for the coming period will be the goals and targets of the department and the wider context of the faculty/divisional plan … At the same time, many individuals will have longer-term personal goals and career aspirations. These also will form part of the discussion and careful consideration should be given to the opportunities for matching these with department and university needs.“
My fear is that with inclusion in the 2020 REF being defined in advance as the overriding goal, which is to be enforced by the head of department’s personal scrutiny of progress, the latter will be a dead letter. Individuals’ career goals will no longer be reconciled with but sacrificed to the targets of the institution—targets that in the research arena have been redefined exclusively in REF terms.
This is an extremely ominous development, especially for colleagues engaged in interdisciplinary research—a group that has been disproportionately excluded from Lancaster’s History submission, whether deliberately or otherwise. For it is likely the interdisciplinary element in their research that made their outputs so “difficult to assess,” “unconventional,” or “risky” in the Mock REF, leading to their eventual exclusion. By the same logic, it will be exactly such “risks” that heads of department will be pressured and expected to work to minimize in the future.
I need hardly spell out the dangers this “performance management” poses to academic freedom, understood as the freedom of faculty members to decide what to research and how. Some of my colleagues seem de facto to be losing it already. It will also, as I have said before, make Lancaster far less distinctive as a research university, whose hallmarks in the past have included its commitment to and support of interdisciplinary scholarship.
This is so predictable – the product of a bureaucratic mind which has no understanding of what is involved with intellectual progress.
And also so unjust. Some academics are excluded on the grounds of ‘strategic fit’ – that is, their work does not fit into the plan that their department has drawn up. OK – that may be – but it is no reflection on their research. It does not mean they are under performing just because their published research does not ‘fit’ into the ‘strategy’.
Galileo would have been on performance management. Oh I forgot – he was because his research did not ‘fit’ with the teachings of the church.