I have agency; give me back the light switch!

This is what I am talking about!

This is what I am talking about!

It is clear even to the less systematic observer that British universities have been going down the Leninist way and administration and leadership have come to believe that

Control is the highest level of trust!

Symptoms are many and varied; the gradual erosion of trust has been spreading like a cancer to suffocate many opportunities for innovation and make working life in academe rather cumbersome, unpleasant and let’s face it, plainly unpleasant. Some of the control and accountability practices plainly don’t make much sense either.

What I’m talking about? I am talking about the fact that:

  • In many British universities academics constitute less than half of the employees (in the University of Manchester academics, when I last checked, were 48%);
  • Probably because of perceived financial threats, accountants (and equivalent) have far too great influence; have you tried recently to convince the accountant in your research office that a grant from a prestigious research funder is not a loss to the university despite not paying overheads? I tried and my advice would be: don’t even go there; this is easier to explain to a five year old.
  • All financial and purchase decision are being taken at higher and higher levels of the organisation. Only yesterday a colleague informed me that the IT Director of Manchester University (just in case you don’t know this it is a monster of an organisation) will be personally approving all purchases of equipment on the basis of a made business case. Is this really good way to justify his/her salary and to create an entrepreneurial organisation?
  • By the time it’s been through all the Committees and levels of control, changing anything beyond the document font of your course (well, I am exaggerating but only slightly) takes anything up to eighteen months. Starting a new course can take even longer.
  • Academics are evaluated most of the time: we have annual teaching evaluations, research evaluations, starts being attached to our names etc. In fact, evaluating each other’s work is becoming most of what we do; performing for the evaluations is what we have started seeing as our jobs. Forget about learning and these students; let’s get the teaching review right.
  • Academics need to apply for permission for almost anything. Some places stop supplying their academics with laptops because they may decided to work from home. I suppose, a next step would be to chain us to our desks and we need to ask for permission to go to the bathroom (melodramatic, I know, but just imagine).

I’ll probably discuss the costs – including the hidden ones – of this very Leninist erosion of trust some other time. Here, it suffices to mention that this is how universities end up with:

  • Disgruntled academics ignoring and disrespecting their organisations;
  • Academics who become employees and, as we all know, the university business model works only when academics self-exploit;
  • Situations where to process am expense claim can cost much more than the claim itself (I am told that to process a claim in Manchester costs about £75 and people could claim £5);
  • Cases where we spend days writing a business case for the purchase of a computer key-board (well, slightly over-stating the case but you get my drift).

This lack of control stretches even further. Just before the summer, in the building where my office is the light switches were taken away and movement sensors were installed: after all, you can’t trust academics to put the lights off!

Unfortunately, light sensors were not installed; as a result all through the exceptionally bright and light summer months the electricity thirsty lights in the building were on all day longs. Yes, this was completely unnecessary. More importantly, what I presume was meant as a cost saving move ended up costing us so much more in:

  • direct costs since the lights were on much longer than they were when the people in the building had the agency to switch them off; even when we forgot on occasion.
  • indirect costs as in: a) the irritation this meant for us, conscious of the environment and bills people; b) the hours we spent discussing the silliness of this move; c) the time spent by some very helpful administrators trying to sort it out; and d) the growing mistrust and disrespect everyone in this building started feeling towards our organisation.

Here is where I draw a line and say:

I have agency! Give me my light-switch back!

Oh, and I have always disliked Lenin.

Asking for permission or asking for forgiveness: academics and holidays

This is the pool in which I swam every day for a week; with permission and forgiveness :)

This is the pool in which I swam every day for a week; with permission and forgiveness 🙂

For me, the summer holiday is truly over: we came back after three weeks away and although I had to do some personal stuff (mainly related to a lot of administration) I feel rested, renewed and ready for what may come. Conferences, invited workshop papers, seminars – bring it on.

Probably best, is that for the first time for a long while I am looking forward to the new academic year; it is not happening to me, I am looking forward to it with hope and enthusiasm.

What is different?

Well, some may say that it is because I finally got what I wanted: from August 1st I am Professor of Science and Innovation Dynamics and Policy at The University of Manchester. These people would be wrong: yes it feels good to win a marginal organisational battle (this is what getting a professorship without moving and/or at least threatening to leave feels like in British universities) but not great enough to overcome the stresses of the changing organisational routines that happen every September. Yes, our students coming back after the summer upsets seriously the organisational routines of universities.

No. It is the fact that I did manage, for the first time in probably a decade or even longer, not to do any academic/university work during my holidays. Yep, you heard me right: none at all. I am emphasising this because working through weekends, public holidays and breaks has become a matter of boastful complaint – you know the kind where people pretend they are complaining but really they are boasting how hard working they are – amongst British academics. A perception that you can’t get ahead without working thirteen hour days, seven days a week, fifty two weeks a year.

Working hard has become a glorified virtue; I agree with the author of Working Smart, Michael LeBoeuf – working hard usually only gets you tired, grumpy and ill. Any success, including success in academia, is about working smart; even more so because working at a university, whether you do research or teaching, is an inherently creative endeavour and creativity favours the rested, calm and focused mind.

But this post is not simply about me finally managing to have a total break (OK, I did check couple of MSc dissertations but this is hardly anything isn’t it); it is about an organisational development that I do find somewhat puzzling. Hence, I decided to share it with my colleagues and readers of this blog so we may find an answer together.

What happened?

Just before going away for the summer, sometime around late July, an e-mail message from one of our administrators landed in my inbox. Nothing unusual so far – many e-mail messages with varying degrees of usefulness end up in my inbox. This message, though, was interesting because it informed me that from now on I’ll have to inform my ‘line manager’ if I am away on holiday.

This immediately, raised three questions: a) who is my ‘line manager’?; and b) how did this come about; and c) why is it necessary?

Who is my line manager?

Forgive me, I may be a remnant of the past but I am not convinced that I have a ‘line manager’. Of course, there are colleagues who have undertaken to run the department for the next couple of years but I do believe that they are the first to reject the notion of them being ‘line managers’.

Being a compliant, neo-liberal employee of the university, I did ask; and it turned out that I – and every other colleague of mine – have to inform our colleagues before we go on holiday.

How did this come about?

Now, don’t misunderstand me; there is a lot to be said about colleagues knowing that you are away – but this used to happen and still happens anyway; it is a simple matter of good behaviour in universities to tell people that you’ll be away. In fact, until very recently, academics covered for each other if one needs to be away taking each other’s teaching, for example. But formally inform the Head of Department?

This is rather strange. Academics are usually not expected to be around the office very much when they are not teaching; or at least, it has always been their choice. It was accepted that academic work – both research and teaching preparation – are largely solitary activities demanding high level of concentration. Academics were trusted to do their job outside the office – as a mathematician friend of mine asked when told to fill in time sheets

‘How do I note the time when I dream mathematics?’

How do I distinguish between being on holiday and working? I will inform my ‘line manager’ that I am resting but what happens if I have an idea and start calling an international team to prepare a proposal? Or a student contacts me with an urgent question?

Apart from that, my contract still says that I have the right to reasonable holiday when I last looked (and this was relatively recently).

I believe that such, and similar, university policies signify two things:

  • There appears to be a general withdrawal of trust that academics, given the chance, will do their jobs properly. Administrators and academic leaders seem to have forgotten that universities thrive on academic self-exploitation  – successful academics generally work much longer hours than their contracts stipulate albeit in non-traditional forms. Many discoveries come in dreams!
  • HR executives who don’t understand the nature of academe and the ways in which human resource matters are different in universities; many of these were recruited from industry in a drive to ‘professionalise’ the universities. They assumed that ‘management’ is really a transferable skill and didn’t bother too much with the finer differences between the way in which academics work and the way in which the other professions employed by the university operate.

Why is it necessary?

Well, it is probably rather obvious I don’t believe that this is necessary. It seems to me that it creates another, and entirely un-necessary layer, of formality and bureaucracy. It is even worse: this kind of useless rule is either ignored or intentionally sabotaged.

Annoying highly intelligent people is always a mistake; universities, going out of their way to annoy their main asset is an error of major proportions!

Do you think I am over-reacting or misunderstanding something?

About assessing academic performance and the Research Excellence Framework (REF)

Couple of weeks ago, I received a message informing me that the outcome of the latest round preparing the University of Manchester for the up-coming Research Excellence Framework (REF) is on line and I can view my results on a specific, dedicated part of the IT system. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that this part of the IT system is called REF Preparation Exercise.

Looking at my scores, made me consider again the way in which academic research and research outputs are assessed. Since in doing this credibility is important, let me assure you that I don’t see myself as being a victim of the system and I am doing rather well with it. Any criticism voiced here is because I’d like to see it working better rather than a ‘sour grapes’ kind of complaint.

But let me set out the scene for my readers outside the UK. British universities are in midst of preparing for the REF that will take place in 2014 and will assess ‘research that has taken place’ between 2008 and 2013. In fairness and honesty, British universities have been continuously preparing for one or other round of this exercise ever since its inception in the mid-1980s. The REF is the latest manifestation of the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) that started in 1986 and through it a set of changes in the relationships between government (the state) and science were initiated. This exercise was to run every five years and assess the research performance of university units through a panel based peer review system; the Panels assign units a certain number of ‘stars’ (currently between 1 and 4). Base line funding for research depends on this assessment and so it is perceived as important by the universities to ‘do well’. In effect, this exercise is as much about reputation as it is about funding. For more on this you can see this article.

Universities have learned to play different games in light of these exercises; from going to great length to get their staff represented on the different panels to ensuring that members of faculty publish regularly in the ‘right’ journals and their publications are of the ‘right’ quality. The University of Manchester is no exception.

We, for instance, have an annual REF preparation exercise where members of staff select a number of their papers (all pre-entered in eScholar – a web based system used to keep a record of our publications); these are read by senior members of staff (Senior Lecturers and Professors) and assigned number of stars corresponding to these assigned by the REF panels (this mind, was done even when we were not entirely clear about the rules and criteria of assessment). There have been plenty of criticisms levelled on the practice mainly relating to the possibility that peer review works at the level of organisations and organisational units, the substantial costs involved and the vague criteria such assessments by necessity employ. Apart from the criticisms directed to nature of assessment there have been concerns regarding the use of the outcome from the preparation exercise (in promotions, for instance) and the Union has called for boycotting participation. Here, I don’t intend to discuss any of these.

What I would like to do is to share my observations regarding some features of the scores of my articles and share what I believe to be the fundamental problem in this kind of assessment system, namely a system focusing on the assessment of published output.

My observations are two:

  1. Any paper published in the top journal of the broad field (Research Policy) received 4*. This is probably one more example that reputation matters.
  2. Output published in other outlets (not top ranking broad domain journals) received lower rankings and it is likely that they were read more carefully. In this case, since knowledge of the narrow field is essential, the timeline of the publication obviously mattered – earlier publications that already have citations were ranked much higher. Epistemic difference also likely played a large role – the bigger the epistemic difference between the narrow research interests and approach of the assessor and the assessed the lower the ranking. I suppose, additional considerations came to play.

This, irrespective of any other concerns, led to couple of anomalies. These are that:

  1. A chapter in a book edited by Polish colleagues was rated 1* (this is the lowest score). This article, although probably not one of my best, was a key to opening a new and progressive personal (and possibly collective) research line. It was solicited by the editors of the book and set out for the first time the notion of science as a relationship between research spaces and research fields. This notion informed writing the proposal for EURECIA, a research project that got funded by the European Research Council (ERC) at slightly less than 500K euro; it provided the intellectual foundation for a later Research Policy paper; and is already being used by other colleagues.
  2. A co-authored article of mine (I am the lead author) in Science was rated 2* (and 1* by the external to the unit assessor). I do believe that anything published by Science warrants higher score than that. This particular article was unique in that it managed to put forward a coherent social science argument (that European level policy is moving from ‘Science in Europe’ to ‘European Science’ mode) in about 3,000 words. The article was reviewed by four peers and went through two rounds of review. Apart from that, it is clearly a part of the budding research line mentioned above.

What is the problem?

I believe that distortions in the ratings originate in the fact that what is being assessed are discrete outputs (published articles, chapters and others); these are assessed as independent events rather than as part of the continuous research lines that we as researchers build and the way in which these research lines intersect with the development of the research field (or fields). Concentrating the assessment on discrete outputs has different problematic implications but here I’d like to mention the following:

  • It can lead to inaccuracies that are far too important in terms of individual’s careers to be allowed;
  • It works against starting new individual research lines and taking risk in research.
  • This in turn reduces epistemic variety in research fields and works against the possibility for intellectual innovation.