Monthly Archives: August 2015

Performance related pay? Really?

I got a bit cross about an article in the Times Higher about paying academics bonuses to boost our productivity. You can read the article here. The article reports on a study carried out in Germany which suggests that paying bonuses (it seems some fairly substantial bonuses) to academics means that productive academics cluster together and that the practice got rid of lower performing candidates. The bonuses are paybale for research outputs /attracting funding and taking on management duties. Universities have discretion as to how they pay bonuses with some dividing up the pot at the end of the year based on relative performance of its academics. I feel slightly sick thinking about this. I am probably in danger of just ranting. I haven’t thought this through fully and I haven’t looked at any research on this but my initial reaction to and gut feeling about performance related by for academics is that it is just wrong. It is wrong on a number of levels and for a number of reasons. I’ll try and articulate them here.

  1. Performance related pay by definition introduces competition  – particularly where a finite pot is divvied up amongst staff based on performance. Academia should not be competitive, it should be collegiate. We should be working together to think about complex and interesting problems. We should not be guarding our knowledge, we shouldn’t be afraid to share it. We shouldn’t be encouraged to take all the credit for work we had help with. Competition for research grants etc is one thing but asking us to compete for a big chunk of our livelyhoods is not going to help research or our students
  2. That brings me nicely to students – where are they in all this. I don’t see mention of rewarding good teaching here. Are we saying that good performance in relation to teaching doesn’t matter? It’s not worth rewarding? Well that’s just great isn’t it.
  3. How do we measure performance? If performance related pay is linked to publishing certain types of outputs in certain types of outlets what happens to all the other types of really good an important work? How to keep doing that? How do we keep researching things that are not currently fashionable or rather how do we keep researching things that aren’t related to money?
  4. A closely related point is about assessing performance in academia generally. This is utterly subjective and of course the metrics put in place across the sector or by individual institutions will be fairly crude and will not be able to capture the complexities of what we all do, the variety of what we do and the fact that we all do some of those things better than others.
  5. There is of course also the point that academics, while not badly paid really, are hardly paid according to our level of education, knowledge, skills and expertise. We have battled our way through undergraduate degrees, postgraduate degrees,  in many cases professional training and eventually PhDs. We are considered very junior in our sector at a point in our lives and at an age where many sports stars have retired and where in the commercial sector you can expect to have established a career with a salary that goes with it. I don’t know a single academic who is in it for the money but it would be nice to feel that our contribution to society is valued.
  6. Academics don’t need to be paid to perform better. In areas where maybe we do struggle it is not because we don’t want to do a good job. It’s not that we can’t be bothered to write that latest article or spent the day sitting on our backsides watching daytime TV rather than preparing teaching materials. The reality is that academics are expected to do far more of everything and the pressure on our time is ridiculous. Most departments are under-staffed, all are under-resourced. We are expected to teach more, research more, do more of our own admin because why pay administrators when the academics can just do it, we are expected to comply with more and more processes and policies with time-consuming and largely pointless paperwork… Staffing departments properly and providing crucial funding for networking, conference attendance etc will make our research and teaching better on all sorts of levels.
  7. And that I think links nicely to the thing that really pissed me off about the article – the insinuation that we (academics) need to be bribed into becoming more productive. The idea that we are a bunch of lazy good for nothing layabouts who don’t work from early May to late September and have 4 weeks off over Christmas. Every academic I know works really hard and every single one of them wants to do a good job whether that’s in teaching or in their research.

So, do I think we should have performance related pay? No, no, no. It’s a stupid idea. It’s an idea that will damage academia and HE further. It’s an idea that really does make me feel sick. There’s so much wrong with it, I still don’t really know where to start. Urgh.

Rentboy Raid

This is worth reading and most certainly worth thinking about. Like Chris said, this exercise of State Power brings into sharp focus that there is much still to be fought for. The raid was wrong and by reblogging Chris’ post I guess I am signalling my agreement with what he said and adding my voice to what is hopefully a growing number of people speaking up.

Law and Sexuality

The US DHS website describes how it came into existence:

‘Eleven days after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge was appointed as the first Director of the Office of Homeland Security in the White House. The office oversaw and coordinated a comprehensive national strategy to safeguard the country against terrorism and respond to any future attacks.

‘With the passage of the Homeland Security Act by Congress in November 2002, the Department of Homeland Security formally came into being as a stand-alone, Cabinet-level department to further coordinate and unify national homeland security efforts, opening its doors on March 1, 2003.’

RENTBOY-master675In recent days, you could be forgiven for thinking that ‘the terrorists’ have changed tactics.  Bombs for dildos, atrocities for blow jobs, and random attacks for an overnight ‘boyfriend experience’.  One day, you’re plotting how to kill ‘the infidels’ and the next you’re popping on a new…

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The NSS – a pet hate

I have been so wrapped up in Clearing and preparing for the new academic year that I missed a recent Guardian article about the National Student Satisfaction Survey (NSS) completely until it appeared in my Facebook timeline. The article claims that the Survey should be abolished before it does any more harm. I couldn’t agree more.

The NSS is one of my pet hates (I have many), one of those utterly stupid games we feel we must play in HE. The articles captures its uselessness for actually telling us anything well. I won’t add to that here but I do want to reflect on how the NSS and all that comes with it plays out for me. The NSS is a game, unfortunately it is a game with high stakes with the results heavily influencing university rankings and rankings heavily influencing student recruitment and with student recruitment heavily influencing the institution’s bottom line… You get the drift. Just leaving students to complete the survey, or not, as they wish is thus a risky strategy. Students must be encouraged to complete it, cajoled or bribed into completing it or, dare I say it, forced into completing it. We didn’t force anyone to complete the survey here – at least not that I am aware of but the university offered prizes/discounts etc when certain completion rate thresholds were reached.

Of course completion is not enough – we need positive scores. The survey is a ranking tool, not a tool through which universities genuinely seek feedback from students. So how do you ensure your students give you the ‘right’ score? Well I would argue you don’t. You let them get on with it and if they mark you down you should have a think about it – they may have a point, they may not! But that’s not how it works in HE anymore. We are constantly asked to think about student satisfaction. What can we do to enhance it, what can we do to make sure we get high scores in the NSS? These are entirely the wrong questions to ask in education. Education is not about being satisfied. Higher education is about learning to cope with uncertainty, about being pushed out of your comfort zone and to your intellectual limits, it’s about confronting your own prejudices and ideals, it’s about thinking deeply and critically about everything you thought you knew. That is a lot of things but it probably isn’t ‘satisfaction’ – particularly if you find it difficult.

I am all for seeking and listening to student feedback and students’ views. I am open to having some really challenging debates with students about what they want from their higher education. I will challenge their views and expect them to challenge mine but I don’t pay much attention to the NSS. It doesn’t tell me anything about how to make our programmes better or how to engage students. It doesn’t tell me how to be a better teacher or how to help students learn. The higher the scores go and the less variation there is, the more depressed I get. There are so many things wrong with higher education at the moment, programmes and universities vary so much, it is absurd to think that the scores across the sector could genuinely vary so little. So the results tell me this:  – we are teaching our students to tick boxes in a stupid game that tells us nothing. That’s not why I’m an academic, don’t know about you.

Where do you write?

I have 3 writing projects at various stages that I need to finish/move on next week. I can write quite quickly when I put my mind to it but I am also the world’s best at putting it off and procrastinating as well as drafting and redrafting and then going back to the original draft, not liking that and starting again… When other people edit, I have a hissy fit and re-write. I often end up with what I started with in the first place! There’s a lesson there.

Anyway I have been reading Alawuntoherself ‘s reflections on where the best place to write is with interest. She’s tried her kitchen, a cafe and the university library and all seem to have their pros and cons. I need to have a good writing week. I have a book chapter to revise, a journal article to revise and I have a set of proofs to go through. I also have a mountain of teaching materials to pull together and new VLE sites to add content to. So I want somewhere without distractions and ideally without access to anything at all to do the proofs. I want somewhere where I can sit with my books and notes and ideas for the article and chapter and I want somewhere where I can browse for online content, youtube videos as well as more traditional academic materials for my students. So – proofs sounds like a summer house job. That might also work for the article and chapter although curled up on my sofa also sounds tempting for them – at least for the initial ‘ right let’s figure out what has to change here’ phase. I might also pop down the hill to my mum’s place – change of scenery sometimes gets the brain working and she has a breakfast bar which I like sitting at. As for the teaching materials – library would be good but I’d need headphones for the videos or podcasts I want to check. Chances of me remembering them are slim!

I do think where you write best depends on what phase of writing and thinking you’re in and what mood you’re in. I actually think variety is probably best for me. I get bored easily so I couldn’t rock up at my local cafe every day for a week and have a productive day every day. I’d get distracted and interested in other things. So, my writing plans are concentrated on Tuesday to Friday as I am in the office tomorrow and am likely to get sidetracked with post exam board queries and other pretty dull admin stuff. I’ll let you know how I get on but in the meantime do let me know if you have any writing tips and I’d love to hear your favourite writing locations.

Clearing – I’ve been there

It is A-Level results week. But then if you have any interest in universities or schools you will know that. This week always comes with mixed feelings for me. I remember the disappointment of not quite getting the A-levels I was hoping for, the heartbreak of not getting into my first choice uni (Sheffield if anyone cares), the panic about not being able to find a place and the excitement of eventually securing a place to study Law at Leicester. It’s also a week of mixed feelings because this week I have to make decisions which change people’s lives.

Anyway, CLEARING. I was there once. It is awful. I got my results, I missed one A grade by a tiny margin and didn’t meet my offer. I called and was rejected. I cried. I had my heart set on going to Sheffield. In those days you had to go through the newspaper to find institutions with place available. I called Leicester because I had actually been on an open day there and liked it a lot – I’d just liked Sheffield more at the time. I also phoned the University of Sussex – my Mum went there as a student – that was the extent of my knowledge. Both institutions took my details, both said they’d phone back. I waited. Leicester called first and offered me a place on the LLB. I accepted and then I cried –  a lot, mostly with relief. I was going to Uni and I was going somewhere I’d seen and I’d liked and it was all going to be fine.

What’s my advice to anyone facing this possible scenario tomorrow? It’ll be fine, don’t panic. Breathe. My institution offers some advice (as do most others I would imagine!) – it includes thinking about where else you might want to go and make a list of alternatives. Do that now. Did you like the look of any institutions you visited for an Open Day but didn’t select in the end? That might be a good candidate to phone – you already know something about them. Think about how far away from home you want to go, if you’re going to live at home then that limits your options, if not, how easy to you want to make it for your parents to come visit or for you to nip home? Put the list in order of preference and then, if you have to, you can start at the top and work your way down.

On the day make sure you have your phone fully charged or access to a landline (ideally both so you can use one for calling out, leaving a line clear for call backs) and make sure you can access your email. Also have pen and paper ready so you can easily take down any reference numbers.

Take your time over making the decision. This decision will change your life. The university and the course have to be right for you. If you don’t know the institution, ask if you can go visit, speak to an academic if possible, ask questions, see if it feels right. This is about your future after all! Listen to those around you offering advice but remember that ultimately it has to be your decision!

And if you just haven’t got the grades to do what you really want? Well that can happen. Get advice. Maybe there’s a foundation year you can do, maybe your College can offer resits or further study or maybe you’re just not as suited to your chosen subject as you thought and it is time for a re-think. Talk it through, think it through, don’t do anything in a panic

Good Luck. I feel for you, I really do. I’ve been there. I will take up my duties on our Clearing helpline tomorrow morning with a knot in my stomach. I will remember my 18 year old self and I will try and handle any of your calls with the same calm and reassurance as the admissions team did at Leicester all those years ago (thank you  – whoever it was!) and I really do hope I’ll be able to say ‘yes, please join us for your student journey’.