The turn of kindness

September and October this year have seen another round of academics on Twitter announcing their withdrawal from academia. And I have met quite a number of doctoral students whose very last option for a career would be a university post. It’s not even a brain drain overseas – new graduates understand the performance-managed, metricized, casualized, marketized university is global. We see the emergence of a generational refusal to pledge lives and wellbeing to institutions which reward dedication and loyalty with excessive workloads, unattainable expectations coded as ‘performance’ but which in all reality obscure the actual work of research and teaching.

When I wrote the HEPI report Pressure Vessels in May of 2019, one reviewer said it read like a UCU rant. In fact, the assertions are fully supported by universities’ own figures showing the year-on-year increase in referrals to occupational health and counselling services. The conclusion – that universities are making academic and professional staff ill – is inescapable. In his foreword, Professor Mike Thomas, former vice chancellor of the University of Central Lancashire wrote:

Liz’s report clearly indicates, with evidence, that directive, performance management approaches are counter-productive to the output, efficiency and effectiveness of the organisation and also to staff wellbeing and mental health. If such an approach works, why are so many of our colleagues so unwell and continue to be so?

And it is not just performance management and workloads which are mentioned in so many of the tweets and blogs that some describe as quitlit. The growth of casualization has meant that academic career pathways in universities are unsustainable and leave many entrants disappointed in the opportunities even for medium term job security. See this and this.

However, there are ‘turns’ and ‘moments’ in postmodern academia. There are also ‘performances’ and ‘cultures’. But while these latter tend to be recruited to management strategies of ‘excellence’ and ‘competitiveness’, there seems to be a move to hit a reset button with regard to academic culture which is aligned with kindness, inclusiveness and sustainability.

A recent opinion piece in Times Higher discusses the prevalence of gaslighting behaviours by managers in higher education. Gaslighting is a kind of psychological manipulation which is designed to destabilize a person’s sense of reality. They start to question their own sanity and perceptions. I have written before about universities and their shifting goalposts in relation to evaluating academic performance.

When the first research assessment exercise took place, the gold standard of research in the humanities was the research monograph. But it is clear now that researchers are being required to follow a model common in STEM fields of producing more calculable outputs in the form of short journal articles in high-ranking journals. This has led in some circumstances to exceptional work being devalued or excluded from the REF. Such exclusion has consequences; some academics may find that active researcher or not, they are placed onto teaching and scholarship pathways which determines which part of their work is sanctioned by the institution; others will find that their apparent non-REFability limits career advancement beyond their current post.

I learned about gaslighting from my old deputy headmistress long before I could give it a name. In retrospect, Grangefield Grammar School for Girls, Stockton-on-Tees, prepared me for employment in UK higher education better than any doctoral program ever could. As we arrived at school, we would find Miss S chalking up a set of new rules each day, some contradicting the edicts of previous days. Each one began with the phrase ‘Girls must NOT…’ followed by some trivial violation of decorum. There was ‘girls must not walk home two abreast’ which caused some hilarity among teenage girls, but not as much as the announcement in assembly, ‘girls must not have intercourse with the boys through the tennis netting’.  Our tennis courts adjoined the boys’ and friendships were often formed across the fencing that divided us. Nobody could think why that should be prohibited until Miss S left us with a raunchy mental image than certainly didn’t reflect reality.

You can imagine that this lack of inter-generational awareness and a preoccupation with micromanaging and punishment gave rise to a pretty toxic school environment. It was authoritarian and hierarchical and there was frequent, coerced denunciation of peers. We hated it and learned ways of hostile resistance. So, when my experience of the academic workplace started to give me flashbacks to Grangefield, I knew it was time to quit. But I have spent the last three years thinking about alternatives.

It has been four years since the publication of James Wilsdon’s The Metric Tide, and some of the report’s recommendations have not been universally applied, but academics are getting bolder about calling out offenders. Here, for example, is Murdoch University in Perth, WA.

Level E academics in engineering would need to punch out eight publications a year in well-regarded journals and generate $158 000 in research income.  In agriculture and vet science the quota is 11 publications and $288 000.  In the humanities, the numbers are not as large, four publications and $83 000 for a Level E in history and archaeology – although two publications and $31 000 might strike career commencers at Level A as an ask.

Campaigns against this sort of bullying can be successful, such as the one organized by Newcastle University academics against their management’s ‘raising the bar’ initiative.

But in addition to resistance from the academic workforce, research councils and grant awarding institutions need to be part of the culture change. It is encouraging to see this recent Nature editorial championing kindness in research and supported by Wellcome, the University of Sheffield, UK (home to Professor James Wilsdon), Leiden University in the Netherlands (see the Leiden Manifesto) and the company Digital Science. The article came as Wellcome hosted the launch of the Research on Research Institute (RoRI), a venture which seeks to mitigate some of the distasteful aspects of academic research and instead support environments where researchers want to work.

There have also been calls for kindness in leadership and institutions. Professor Mike Thomas, former VC of UCLAN, was briefly able to inaugurate a research centre into kindness in leadership in 2018 before his departure from the university in the same year. Sadly, there was no trace of the centre when I searched for it on the UCLAN website in March 2019. Perhaps the university’s management team and governors did not share those values. One suspects the academics did. Or perhaps it was another casualty of the marketised university privileging income over the creation and curation of knowledge. The University of Sussex claims to promote kindness as one of its core values but the message seems to focus on students, not staff. It does fund a kindness research centre, though. The University of Buckingham’s efforts to unearth kindness lead it straight to embrace its more prosperous alumni. It seems kindness, like education, is transactional.

At the very least, we should expect sector leaders who are prepared to challenge some of the more toxic imperatives of government. Pam Tatlow, former chief executive of the MillionPlus group of universities, agrees:

We are chronically short of such leaders. I hesitate to show favoritism – I have The Stranglers’ No More Heroes ringing in my head – but the willingness of Professor David Green CBE, vice chancellor of the University of Worcester, to speak out against government policy has, on more than one occasion, given me cause to cheer, and I don’t cheer much. Is it too much to ask that we have universities I could recommend as workplaces or places of education to my friends and family ?


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