Tag Archives: performancve management

Raising the Bar: The Metric Tide That Sinks All Boats

Liz Morrish writes: A longer post than usual, but very relevant if your working life in academia is governed by the insanity of metrics – grant income, PhD students, impact, REf 4* ‘outputs’. You know it is insanity, so read on…..

James Wilsdon may as well not have inveighed against the ‘metric tide’, and Jo Johnson could have saved printers’ ink asking vice-chancellors not to waste academics’ time, and students’ fee money by operating multiple ‘mock’ REFs (BIS Green Paper November 2015 Chapter 2, para 7).

It is time for a critical conversation to take place about the use and abuse of metrics. In July 2015, Hefce published The Metric Tide, the report of a review body chaired by James Wilsdon, professor of science and democracy at the University of Sussex.

Despite the report’s chilling preface, announcing a “new barbarity” in our universities, we continue to witness the misuse of metrics as a tool of management in UK higher education. “Metrics hold real power: they are constitutive of values, identities and livelihoods”, wrote Wilsdon. Universities should proceed with caution, then, lest metrics should spread like a digital Himalayan Balsam and undermine the ethical architecture of universities.

It is ironic, but perhaps fortunate, that students find universities a very different experience than the academic staff who labour in them. For students, the intrusive scrutiny of metrics can at least claim to betoken a therapeutic and supportive institution. Generally speaking, the student ‘dashboard’ does not harbour the disciplinary function of its academic equivalent. 

For academic staff, audit has become a central organizing principle of life in universities (Strathern 2003). Our working lives are structured around the requirement to undergo ‘rituals of verification’ (Power 1997), and there are as many anticipatory audits as there are demands for post-hoc justification. Such is their prevalence that the behaviour of academics has been transformed so that they are interpolated primarily as auditees (Petersen and Davies 2010). Benchmarks, metrics and dashboards are examples of calculative practices (Shore and Wright 2015), used, apparently, to measure and improve the productivity of academics. This imposes a rationality whereby we face a future of ‘algorithmic regulation’ (Morozov 2014), and regimes in which employees are hierarchized according to metrics. University policy documents endeavour to justify these practices as essential, and even empowering to academics.

I have blogged previously about the difference between stewardship and agency approaches to performance management, citing a report from the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education (Franco-Santos et al. 2014).

Stewardship approaches frame a long term direction of travel which relies on individuals exercising autonomy, while agency approaches address short term goals via monitoring and tight control. While UK universities seem beholden to the short-term, agency approach, stewardship approaches are favoured by Umran Inan, President of Koc University in Turkey. He writes that “that any attempt to pass down norms or procedures” from on high is antithetical to creativity, and that universities must instead “allow unusual [and] inconsistent things to happen” (Parr 2014). At Koc, quality of scholarship is allowed to flourish and internal evaluations take place every five years. By comparison, in the UK, we are in danger of allowing academic freedom and creativity to founder under the distorting constraints of audit.

I am not fond of sports metaphors, but many vice-chancellors are. I understand that what has made the New Zealand All Blacks a great team is a sense that there is a long-term investment in each player’s development, rather than the England team’s reliance on a permanent sense of insecurity and enforced competition for their place on the team.

Raising the Bar is a sports metaphor that will be familiar to academics at Newcastle University, as they have become one of the latest universities to publish their expectations for research performance. All of this was initiated by managerial anxiety, amidst chatter about so-called ‘bottom Russellers,’ that Newcastle has been “lacking in competitiveness compared to other Russell Group institutions”. The Vice-Chancellor, Chris Brink stated in a ‘town hall meeting’ in November 2015 that Newcastle had lacked 4*-ness in the last REF, and that an institutional goal was to be in the top half of the Russell Group. This can be attributed purely to league table-induced status anxiety. But I do wonder when, exactly, did academia become a combat zone? Probably it was at the same time they started awarding stars, like US Army generals. When did the amount of grant money eclipse the actual content of the research? But Raising the Bar is a coercively innocent phrase. It conveniently conceals all the judgement, hostility, pain and pressure that we know will follow it. Academic endeavour is not something that can just be improved by order. Research functions within a context, an ethos and a dynamic.

Now that I have built a reputation for busting managerial myths about performance management, kind Twitterati send me their universities’ policy documents. As a linguist, I feast upon their discursively encoded ideologies. As a human being, a scholar and a friend of many victims, I weep at the cost for these individuals, but also for the future of universities.

This is my analysis of the document (see below): Newcastle University, Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, Research and Innovation Performance Expectations.

First of all, we find that these are expectations, not objectives, not targets, not goals. Expectations are much more finite and concrete, and do not permit that worrying prospect of slippage.

[T]he expectations on research active staff – so by definition if you do not meet them you are not research active, despite any other evidence to the contrary.

This document is focussed on research performance…..as this will determine our ranking in the next REF. And the key to this, we learn, will be increasing the number of 4* outputs. The parameters of ‘performance’ are drawn so rigidly, and amount solely to ‘being REF-able’.  This circumscribes any kind of professional autonomy, or even what should count as academic labour, guaranteeing that much of what academics do will be rendered invisible. What of the early career researcher, or graduate student celebrating their first scholarly publication? This will probably not be a 4*, and any pleasure or sense of fulfilment will be subdued.  How can any of us take pleasure in our work under these conditions?

 [W]e have largely relied on REF 2014 entry as a proxy for reaching the minimum expectations for research outputs. How is this possible? How would a local assessor know if an individual’s outputs were scored as the quoted minimum 3*? Individual REF scores are categorically not available; they have been destroyed (REF FAQ).

A criterion for a chair is: aspires to be in the Top quartile in UoA for income, or aspiring to 4* – how can everyone be in the top quartile? With success rates as low as 12%, then that is an expectation you will probably not meet. And how do you indicate aspiration, if you fall short? Are we now to be judged on the breadth of our imaginations?

Newcastle University is not alone in planning to audit their academic staff on attainment of quantifiable targets, with some, like grant capture, quite outside their control. Nor is the misery confined to the Russell Group; Newcastle joins a long list which now amounts to one in six UK universities, according to the Times Higher: Queens University Belfast, Imperial, Queen Mary University of London, Abertay University, Plymouth University, Robert Gordon University and the universities of Aberdeen, Dundee, East Anglia, Glasgow, Greenwich and Leeds.

If targets are unattainable, this leads to unmanageable levels of stress. This is objective setting 101. Employers have a legal obligation to conduct risk assessments and prevent known causes of stress. “Employers are only in breach of their duty if they have failed to take reasonable steps in the circumstances to prevent the stress”. Notice the word is ‘prevent,’ not alleviate stress. It is not helpful to offer mindfulness workshops, nor aromatherapy. The workplace should be managed in accordance with the law and decent moral conduct.

Of course, Chris Brink alluded to the fact that academics would be ‘supported’ in reaching the new bar; however the inevitable monitoring, reporting and surveillance will only serve to amplify the pressure of the audit. If we need evidence that targets and performance management cause insupportable stress, we should remember the tragic case of Stefan Grimm who took his own life after being threatened with performance management procedures at Imperial College. The coroner found Stefan’s death to be ‘needless’  and Imperial College said that ‘wider lessons’ would be learned. It is now very clear that the nation’s vice-chancellors have been unwilling to face the facts. There is systematic, mass victimization of UK academics.

And it is not confined to the UK; recent research from Australia on the impact of aggressive performance management on early career researchers (Petersen 2016 forthcoming) indicates that stress starts to manifest itself quickly, and has a negative impact on work. Many ECRs “struggled to articulate the value and worth of their work outside the productivity discourse” (2016:12). The constraints of metrics cause the content of the research to change, and researchers attempt to mirror what is ‘hot’ – likely to get funding under shifting priorities of research councils. And I have observed as well that we all tend to discount even solid scholarship – edited volumes or book reviews – if they are not REF-able. And in the same way we will learn to discount any work which is not judged – even by non-expert assessors – as worthy of a 3* or 4* ranking. As Petersen says of her informants, “they and the substance of their work become easier to control”.

Another control technique is to devalue the work of someone who is entirely dedicated to their scholarship, and whose whole identity is enmeshed with their work. Ammunition can easily be found when targets are so numerous and the scope so wide that almost every employee can be found wanting in some dimension. The targets reflect management’s construction of the ideal employee who is ‘compelled never to rest’ (Davies and Petersen 2005: 89). This offers employers the opportunity to apply policies capriciously: poor teaching scores may be overlooked in some cases, but lack of grant income is not. It is a licence for the academically insecure to settle grudges or academic jealousies with their more talented underlings. And so an increasing number of academics are being marched through performance management processes in which their unique contributions are rendered insignificant and their imagined lapses are deemed ‘incapability’. Targets must be attained at each and every period of audit. You may find that international esteem is never arrived at, even though your books – even translations of them – are still on the shelves. Was it achieved and documented in the last six months? That is all that matters. Professorship must be performed in these tightly delimited ways like a horse doing dressage. Threats of demotion are made. It is like rescinding Mark Spitz’s gold medals because he can no longer match Michael Phelps.

I have to question whether these quantifiable targets meet management’s declared aims of encouraging staff retention and offering a structure of support for academics. It is hard to imagine they could work positively in this way when, in some departments, significant numbers of academics are immobilized by emotional and professional breakdown.

In the fictions and contradiction of management Polari, this is returned to the apparently delinquent employee as ‘empowerment’, even as managers arrogate the power to press the detonate button on careers. This mendacious discourse serves to absolve the perpetrators of torture from the shattering incapacitation these procedures invoke.

The Vice-Chancellor of Newcastle University portrays the metrics of Raising the Bar as objectivity. It is not, nor is it objective setting; this is objectification. Let us remind ourselves of Martha Nussbaum’s (1995) original seven features of objectification:

  • Instrumentality – to be treated as a tool for man’s purposes. At Newcastle, the function of an academic is to raise the bar, increase grant income and raise the university’s position in the league tables.
  • Denial of autonomy – activity and what counts as work is tightly defined and controlled.
  • Inertness – there are no human agents in the Newcastle documents. Grammatical subjects include ‘this document’, and “this aspect of our academic portfolio”, “a detailed analysis of the results” and “expectations”. There is the passive voice throughout, with just three instances of an unattributed pronoun ‘we’. ‘We’ is an inherently ambiguous pronoun. It can be used either inclusively, or exclusively of the addressee. Looking at the contexts: “we do not expect all staff to have equal strengths”; “we have largely relied on REF 2014”; “We will take early career researcher’ – these usages seem to retain the prerogative of its exclusive attribution.
  • Fungibility – interchangeability with other objects of the same type. How often have you heard managers say “we have an open door policy”? And notice that in HR-speak, there are no people, with contributions to make, there are only ‘roles’, and these can have the status of vacant, or filled.
  • Violability – something that can be broken, violated, smashed into. Many academics are now looking at ruined careers and broken ambitions. We have ensured that an academic career has become unsustainable in the long term.
  • Ownership – something that can be traded or commodified; we now hear about ‘a transfer market’ for ‘4* 4’ professors – professors with four 4* outputs.
  • Denial of subjectivity – your feelings need not be taken into account. Indeed, there is no way of expressing them, as we are forced to account for our work in terms of management-defined metrics. This is known as illocutionary silencing (Meyerhoff 2004).

Does this seem familiar? Objectification is the reality behind what we are supposed to believe is ‘empowerment’, a word now taking that slide into the semantic inversion prefigured by ‘excellence’ and ‘quality’. But generations of women have been persuaded that objectification is empowering, so why not try it out on academics?

This is a job creation scheme for HR as more and more academics will find themselves falling short of ‘Raising the Bar’. If we are lucky, they may embroil universities in grievances and libel suits which will chasten managers’ love of ‘robust’ metrical solutions to problems which do not exist. Vice-chancellors use a dip in metrics, or the effects of incapacitation – ‘falling over’ – in their jargon, as an occasion to axe courses, subject, departments and schools. We are about to enter an era of manufactured instability in universities in both staff turnover and academic offering.  

Metrics, then, are unlikely to offer any of the certainties that their champions have promised, and doubly so because of the sheer irrationality that governs their application. The bar must be raised, and raised again. No-one must slip beneath the bar. There is only the bar, the metric that cannot lie. Except it does. There is always a rush to judgement as metrics occlude any other evidence. This is the weak spot, and one that offers a route to resistance. What about content? What about the imagination, passion and risk-taking that animate research? What about bright people having fortuitous conversations?

There has been a hollowing out of the sense of purpose of universities as power is skewed towards the managerial function. Despite vice-chancellors’ assurances that There is No Alternative, it doesn’t have to be like this, and it is our job to take every opportunity to make this clear. Good work cannot be sustained under these conditions of pressure and surveillance. Academics are not servo systems whose online functioning can be monitored and tweaked in response to new demands. Consider this reality; academics with all their strengths and imperfections are the people who attract students. I gift several Saturdays a year to my institution because, it seems, I am able to persuade students to study there. Nobody ever signed up because of the award-winning Human Resources team, or was swayed by the robustness of the Improving Performance Procedure.

So let’s indeed raise the bar. Let’s raise the bar for decency, humanity, respect and trust. Let’s realise that academic staff do not have either the resources or the capacity to keep expanding their workloads and output every year, and please let’s keep in mind the human consequences of systems that push people above, over and beyond. And let’s return to that meaning of ‘we’ and allow ourselves to feel that it includes everyone who works in a university and not allow it to pertain exclusively to management. I hope that, perhaps, one day, vice-chancellors and their senior management teams will wake up and remember they work for universities; they are not the university.

 Video of talk at Newcastle University 25th November 2015

Newcastle Humanities and Social Sciences RTB doc



 Davies, B. and Petersen, E.B. 2005. Neo-liberal discourse in the academy: The forestalling of (collective) resistance. Learning and Teaching in the Social Sciences 2 (2): 77-98.

Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. 2015.  Fulfilling our Potential: Teaching Excellence, Social Mobility and Student Choice. November 2015. HMSO.  https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/474227/BIS-15-623-fulfilling-our-potential-teaching-excellence-social-mobility-and-student-choice.pdf

Franco-Santos, M., Rivera, P. and Bourne, M. 2014. http://www.som.cranfield.ac.uk/som/dinamic-content/news/documents/PerformanceManagementinUKHigherEducationInstitutions.pdf

Meyerhoff, Miriam. 2004. Doing and saying: some words on women’s silence. In R.T. Lakoff. Language and Women’s Place: Text and Commentaries (revised and expanded). M. Bucholtz (ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. 209-215.

Morozov, E. 2014. To Save Everything, Click Here. Penguin.

Nussbaum, Martha. 1995. Objectification, Philosophy and Public Affairs, 24 (4), pp. 249–291.

Parr, Chris. 2014. Young universities’ secrets of success, Times Higher. July 17th.

Power, Michael. 1997. The Audit Society: Rituals of Verification. Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1997.

Petersen, E.B. (forthcoming, 2016) The impact of managerial performance frameworks on research activities among Australian early career researchers, in ed. K. Trimmer Political Pressures on Educational and Social Research. NY: Routledge

Petersen, E.B. and Davies, B. 2010. In/Difference in the neoliberalised university.  Learning and Teaching in the Social Sciences 3 (2): 92-109.

Shore, C. and Wright, S. 2015. Audit culture revisited. Current Anthropology, 56 (3): 421-444.

Strathern, M. (ed) 2000. Audit Cultures: Anthropological Studies in Accountability, Ethics and the Academy. London: Routledge.

Wilsdon, J., et al. (2015). The Metric Tide: Report of the Independent Review of the Role of Metrics in Research Assessment and Management. DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.1.4929.1363


The disciplinary dashboard: from reception class to retirement

The photo above made me start contemplating the intrusion of a repressive disciplinary culture into UK universities. Disciplinary action for tailgating? Whatever happened to having a quiet word with somebody? Just a few years ago, campus security was left in the capable hands of a few retirees from the services and the police. They knew academics and students by name, and exerted a calm authority refined through years of dealing with minor infractions. Now, a mere parking violation incurs a meeting with HR.

Many of us will be aware of new university policies on disciplinary procedures. If we have read them, we will be aware that the policies themselves are often not in the least repressive or out of kilter with professional expectations. It is when these policies intersect with over-zealous performance management procedures that things get troublesome – I have previously blogged about so-called under-performing professors 

So when I read the front page of the New York Times this morning (Sunday 16th August 2015), the portrayal of compulsory overwork and inhumane demands at Amazon in Seattle seemed unsettlingly portentous. When employees ‘hit the wall’ from the unrelenting pace, they are told to ‘climb the wall’. Amazon boasts an approach termed ‘purposeful Darwinism’ which ensures the lowest ranked employees are ‘eliminated’. This is facilitated by an Anytime Feedback Tool – a ‘widget’ which allows co-workers to report each other to management for poor performance or bad attitude. Shockingly, among the victims of this regime, there were employees with long-term serious health problems. According to one interviewee, he had witnessed everybody he worked with breaking down and crying in the office at some point. No wonder.

So this is testosterone-fueled Silicon Valley, not academia. But the future is closer than you think. It is not just a tightening vice around professors and their ‘performance management’, it seems that the panopticon is about to be extended across the whole academic hierarchy with the introduction of ‘faculty dashboards’. These are tools which allow data on each academic to be collated into an individual profile showing publications, citations, research grants and awards won. It can be updated daily by the head of department, dean or vice-chancellor. Norms can be established, and of course, extended year-on-year. They may be changed, according to strategic priorities beyond the control, or indeed the value set, of academics.

This may seem alien and frightening to the current generation of academics. I hope so. What frightens me, is how little resistance this style of management evokes from current undergraduate students. Many universities now have a ‘student dashboard’ apparently aimed at supporting students and increasing retention. It may record VLE logins, door swipes, tutorial attendance, titles of library books borrowed, assignment submissions and grades. When I asked my students if they were comfortable with revealing all this to me, who had just met them, they were nonchalant, and even welcoming of a virtual servo-system which would keep them ‘on track’.

I wonder if this acceptance will be even more enthusiastic among a generation raised with this ‘educational disciplinary system’. Demeritus keeps track of rules, issues penalties, informs parents and, chillingly, discursively inaugurates a new generation of ‘repeat offenders’ – all before they have even learned to ride a bicycle. I rather hope it will inspire sullen resistance if not outright intergenerational retribution.

This disciplinary excess is a sign of a culture which chooses to ‘invest’ in privatized prisons rather than ‘subsidize’ schools and universities. It is certainly familiar in the US to residents of states like Texas, where social justice forums have identified a school-to-prison pipeline.

It is dangerous – immoral – to allow childhood and adolescent transgressions to remain on an electronic rap sheet, to be uncovered when, for what – a job application, adoption process, or even running for President? And when students graduate to college, they face even more repression. Paul Greatrex has written about the routine arming of US university police with military hardware. We have learned this year that such environments may bring about dangerous consequences for students and faculty of color. In the UK too, police have been brought onto campus to quell student protests at the Universities of Birmingham, Warwick and London.

Universities, as I have blogged elsewhere, are unpopular in sections of the media, and with many in the Conservative government. They have come under scrutiny in the US as well, with President Obama and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton both questioning the spiraling cost of higher education. This has occasioned a predictable attack on the easy targets – tenured faculty members. A bill is being considered by the Iowa Senate which purports to relate to the teaching effectiveness and employment of professors. I quote from the first few paragraphs of SF64:

Each institution of higher learning under the board’s control shall develop, and administer at the end of each semester, an evaluation mechanism by which each student enrolled in the institution shall assess the teaching effectiveness of each professor who is providing instruction to the student each semester… Scores are not cumulative. If a professor fails to attain a minimum threshold of performance based on the student evaluations used to assess the professor’s teaching effectiveness, in accordance with the criteria and rating system adopted by the board, the institution shall terminate the professor’s employment regardless of tenure status or contract. (2) The names of the five professors who rank lowest on their institution’s evaluation for the semester, but who scored above the minimum threshold of performance, shall be published on the institution’s internet site and the student body shall be offered an opportunity to vote on the question of whether any of the five professors will be retained as employees of the institution.

Dismissing apparently competent, but unpopular academics starts to look very much like the Amazon ‘purposeful Darwinism’. We can only imagine the consequences for the stability of programs, research and collegiate relations. As we anticipate the arrival of the Teaching Excellence Framework, we must hope that it does not cement a culture of perpetual surveillance and ruinous ‘consumer choice’ by National Student Survey scores. If there is no pause button in academia, if there is no room for slow work, risk, failure and unpopularity, then universities really will have become a disciplinary dystopia.

The paradox of the ‘under-performing professor’

This post has been inspired by an apparent declaration of hostilities towards professors in a number of universities. The weapon of choice has been performance management, and some aspects of audit culture have been liberated from their usual role of absorbing academics’ time to becoming instruments of punishment.

In universities we have seen a deprofessionalization of academic staff which has manifest itself in a number of ways. In, many areas, disciplinary groups have been broken up and atomized across the university, in response to management‘s fear of ‘silos’. In others, productive interdisciplinary groups have been disrupted by reorganizations which have obstructed innovation. In at least one famous case, an entire centre was vandalized (Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies at the University of Birmingham in 2002) because its members refused to surrender to the neoliberal commandment that research must be a competitive and self-important process.

The one thing that academics were permitted to retain was a system of academic esteem bestowed by promotion to professor. This was trusted to reward talent, reputation and diligence, but in recent years, even those who attain professorial rank are subject to this regime of never quite ‘becoming’. In several UK universities, the intrusive gaze of Human Resources has recently fallen on alleged ‘under-performing professors’. I have managed to obtain performance criteria documents from a number of universities where professorial targets have been revised.

In any sane university, to talk of ‘under-performing professors’ as a generic description, would be recognized as pure incongruity; since Human Resources decide the ever-ascending criteria for promotion to this level, they might be trusted to not betray their own judgment. There seems to be some degree of ‘moral panic’ among senior management teams as in many universities, crude targets for grant income are now being set for individual researchers. Increasingly in universities, as well as undergoing six-monthly performance reviews (as frequently as newly appointed probationers), professors must now meet exacting criteria for ‘quality’ of publications. Progression to the next professorial level must be achieved within five years, and this depends on meeting certain ‘drivers’, which include securing a research grant as PI every two years, producing REF 3* and 4* ‘outputs’, supervising graduate students, producing a significant impact case study, leading high-prestige international collaborations, and of course, continuing to teach. Failure to meet these expectations will result in the public humiliation of improving performance procedures, and possible demotion. No accrual of reputation can be permitted; the criteria must be met every year, not just over the course of a distinguished career. In this way, any prestige associated with the rank of professor must be considered temporary, as is its tenure. Professors, then, have been made to join the expanding precariat of the academy. Ben Knights (2013) cites Sennett (1998), who recognizes that “a regime which instills insecurity, in which you are… ‘always starting over’ is inimical to the longer term processes of memory and imagination.

This is the society of control outlined by Deleuze (1990).  Foucauldian (sequential) disciplinary regimes (Morrish, 2011)  give way to ones in which, just as one hurdle is surmounted, another, higher one presents itself, with the end point always at the far horizon. We find this reflected in management documents on performance review with a lexicon of journeys, milestones and checkpoints, but the individual is never allowed to arrive at the promised reward. Gatekeeping measures such as the imposition of perpetual training, perpetual review of publications or multiple-staged applications for promotion, must be endured, even to participate.

Performance management has recently been under scrutiny by the press, academics and their trade union, University and College Union. The death of Stefan Grimm in September 2014 shocked the academic community. A very moving appeal to the academic community appeared on this blog: https://musicfordeckchairs.wordpress.com/tag/professor-stefan-grimm/

Professor Grimm held the Chair in Toxicology at Imperial College, London, and he took his own life after being threatened with performance management procedures when he was deemed not to have brought in ‘prestigious’ grant money. http://www.dcscience.net/2014/12/01/publish-and-perish-at-imperial-college-london-the-death-of-stefan-grimm/

His obituary on the Imperial College website reads:

Over the past 20 years, his work to this scientific field includes 50 publications in top-ranked journals, two books, more than 3000 citations and 5 patents on innovative strategies for screening novel genes involved in cell death pathways and new anti-cancer genes. Professor Stefan Grimm chaired and co-organized international conferences and served as reviewer for research-funding organizations and many international scientific journals. Recently, Stefan was elected as fellow of the Society of Biology. (http://www3.imperial.ac.uk/newsandeventspggrp/imperialcollege/newssummary/news_14-1-2015-17-40-44)

This hardly looks like the profile of an ‘underperforming’ professor. His crime, though, was that he prioritized science rather than the accumulation of capital. It took seven months for Professor Alice Gast, the President of Imperial College, to make a public statement on Stefan Grimm’s death. In an interview on the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme, on 17th April 2015, when asked directly about the case, she offered this oblique comment:

Professors are under pressures. They have a lot on their plates. Professors are really like small business owners. They have their own teaching to perform. They have their own research and they have their research funding to look after. They work with teams of post-docs and post graduate students. Then some of them work on translational work and develop entrepreneurial and new companies and spin outs. It’s a very highly competitive world out there. The collaborative nature and the way in which we’re moving towards highly collaborative work I think helps because one starts to recognise that you can’t do it all alone. You need a team. You build a team with the very best colleagues. You have not only that interplay between the different backgrounds and disciplines but you get the new ideas that are generated by bringing diverse people together. (http://markcarrigan.net/2015/04/17/president-of-imperial-college-london-professors-are-really-like-small-business-owners/)

There has been a shockingly rapid move from entrepreneurship as metaphor, to a state in which it is both literal and mandatory. It features as a ‘key competency’ in academic job descriptions, and there is now an expectation that professors will earn their own salaries and research expenses. In addition, professors are seen as a kind of Praetorian Guard who will build a university’s brand with ‘outreach’ activities such as media interviews. As we know, institutional branding is about the manipulation of appearances, but when that is made a priority in a professor’s workload, you know that academic values have been forsaken. It is a world which creates posts like an Associate Dean of Eureka Moments (Bristol University 2015) and a Pro Vice Chancellor of Ambition Innovation and Student Satisfaction (Anglia Ruskin 2015).

It is common in the performance management documents I have collected, for reference to be made to ‘stretching objectives’ which are purported to sit in between an individual’s ‘comfort zone’ and the  ‘panic zone’. ‘Stretching objectives’ are presented as desirable, but objectives which place individuals in their comfort or panic zones are not. There is a disturbing presupposition in this discourse of comfort zones. To be asked to go beyond it makes the patronizing assumption that one’s life is normally comfortable. It certainly reveals that those charged with auditing and defining these comfort zones are fortunate in this way. It is a discourse which permits no acknowledgment that the employee may find teaching or research extremely stressful, at least some of the time. Their domestic circumstances may add additional stress – illness of a child, the loss of a partner’s job, death of a parent – these may all lower the threshold of discomfort at work. The managerial class, who can at least assuage some of their discomfort with a larger salary, should check their privilege and ‘think outside the box’ they have just casually ticked.

It is not clear what results university managers expect to emerge from a system of unattainable targets, constant surveillance and audit, and the knowledge that any dip in ‘performance’ may see their contracts terminated, but the death of Stefan Grimm should have brought this kind of disciplinary regime to a swift halt in any ethical institution. In some universities, professors are subject to an inversion of operant conditioning whose ‘incentives’ would be recognized by Milgram, not Skinner. In all this talk of drivers, stretching, and comfort zones, did anyone stop to think of the psychological risk of treating professors as though they were computer processors with a limited life and inevitable disposability? I am not a professor, but many of my friends are. They are all passionate, creative, rewarding colleagues and professionals. They are remapping their fields for others to follow. The fact that they may not be one of the 15 in 100 who wins a research grant is really no reflection on the significance of their work.  They are people whose primary identity is defined by their scholarship. Did nobody in HR raise an objection that treating a professor like this is inhumane, because it certainly makes me weep? The last word on this belongs to Stefan Grimm. “They treat us like shit”, he said at the end of his last email to colleagues. And then he ended his life.


On September 7th-8th 2015 a seminar on Language of Money and Debt was held at Roehampton University. The organizers were Dr Annabelle Mooney and Dr Evi Sifaki and I was a keynote speaker. This event fell close to the anniversary of Stefan Grimm’s death. We felt it should never be forgotten. In response to the Music for Deckchairs blog piece https://musicfordeckchairs.wordpress.com/tag/professor-stefan-grimm/, which asked us all to do the academic equivalent of ‘putting our bats out’ for Stefan, we decided to build a cairn of books. Each participant was asked to bring a book to share with our students, our colleagues and ourselves, which might help us to deal with these pressures. It is the most fitting memorial we could think of.

Stefan Grimm cairn


Deleuze, G. 1990. Postscript on the Societies of Control. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. 3-7.

Ben Knight    Knights, B. 2013. ‘Politics and enhancement: the English Subject Centre’ in (eds.) Deborah Philips and Katy Shaw. Literary Politics: The Politics of Literature and the Literature of Politics. Basingstoke: Palgrave. pp181 – 193

Moriarty, Philip. 2015.  The use of raw grant income as a performance target has got to go – now. Times Higher. June 18th. https://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/the-use-of-raw-grant-income-performance-as-a-target-has-got-go-now

Morrish, L. 2011. Con-Dem-Nation and the attack on academic cultures. Campaign for the Public University. November 2nd 2011. http://publicuniversity.org.uk/2011/11/02/con-dem-nation-and-the-attack-on-academic-cultures/

Gender and performance in the neoliberal academy

In my previous blog post, for ‘A feminist leaves NeoLiberal U’ I was responding to some of the concerns that a colleague had raised, in her letter of resignation, about her gendered experience of the neoliberal, competitive, speeded up academy. My colleague is the mother of young children, and has found the multiple demands of teaching, research and administration overwhelming, especially in a context of institutional panic about the REF and league tables, and escalating expectations of ‘excellence’. Below I offer more thoughts on the particular impact of the culture of restlessness on women in universities, as this seems to have touched a nerve among readers on the blog and on Twitter.

In the UK, performance review and REF submission loom large as ‘drivers’ of academic anxieties. In the US, tenure and promotion take their toll, especially on women, who may face domestic as well as professional expectations. This is a reflection written by a female US academic about her upcoming mid-tenure review:

For some of us, it’s not that we are afraid to lean in. It’s that we have jumped in head first and are barely treading water even when we are considered “successful.” It’s not that my success has come at the expense of family or that my career advancement has been stifled by raising a family. It’s that my success in academe is simply not the kind of success that I envisioned myself. Success should feel good, make you beam with pride, feel as if all your hard work was worthy of something bigger. I envisioned, and frankly deserve, a type of success in which the next panic attack isn’t just around the corner and in which supportive spouses don’t feel like they must resort to ultimatums to cultivate a meaningful family life. (Sangaramoorthy, 2015)

As this example shows, it is important to recognize the differently gendered effects of the neoliberal preoccupations with competitiveness, efficiency and increasing productivity. Without wanting to appear essentialist about the particularities of the effects, we need to take into account the realities of many women’s lives. Lynch (2010) and Evans (2010) both refer to the ‘careless’ university which only rewards ‘careless’ employees. It is your bad luck if you have caring responsibilities which limit the time you can devote to ‘productive’ work.  Shame on you if you wish to mentor a younger colleague, and overlook a publication deadline. Capability procedures for you, if you happen to lose the lottery of research grant ‘capture’. Women, writes Evans, must be prepared to perform according to the metrics of success that have been derived according to norms of masculine lives.

So far, I haven’t even addressed the extent of the extra imposition faced by women of color. As well as acting as role models and sources of counselling and affirmation for students of color, institutions often burden such faculty members with promoting and building diversity. These assignments soak up time, and expectations of published outputs are rarely adjusted accordingly.

And these are the good institutions that claim to care about diversity. For the most part, it is barely acknowledged except in the form of an Equality and Diversity department, there to ensure legal compliance and statistical monitoring. There is no intervention against the compulsory conformity, the inscriptions applied by racist structures on bodies seen as different – these all belie institutional claims and commitments to diversity. I have borne witness to the exclusion of several black women colleagues: their careers casually thwarted by neglect; their unique contribution to the student body forestalled.

For all of us there is a common theme. Our professional lives are dominated by the need to provide discursive evidence that we are compliant with the managerial regime in the form of performance management reviews, teaching evaluations, student satisfactions surveys, research excellence frameworks. Failure to enter into the discourse results in illocutionary silencing, since one has become literally unintelligible to the managerial mind.  By locating critique outside the range of the sayable, our resistance is blunted (Davies and Bendix-Petersen, 2005: 85). The discourse of audit, as Strathern (2000) explains, is often about ‘helping’ people to monitor themselves, and indeed, Gay Tuchmann (2009) has said that we do this as reflexively as a diabetic pricks her finger.

What I found so rare in my colleague’s letter of resignation is that, even at a point of desperation, she has somehow found the reserves of self-worth to think her way outside of this. There is a peculiar force field to audit culture and the rituals of verification (Power 1999) that go with it. Regimes of performance management formalize these to the extent that our whole academic identity has been re-shaped by a series of managerially-imposed criteria, which for many of us, are simply incongruous with academic values and aspirations.

The response to my blog post on Twitter was heartwarming. I feel encouraged. I have no idea how my colleague is feeling, but I’m guessing there is a poignant sense of a supportive community, though intangible, invisible and located somehow out of reach. This is the clandestine academy that Thomas Docherty has written about. There is an urgency, as I will argue in my next piece, for making our views known to management – to resist the discourse one performance indicator, driver and dashboard at a time.


Davies, B. & Bendix Peterson, E. 2005. Neo-liberal discourse in the academy: The forestalling of (collective) resistance. Learning and Teaching in the Social Sciences 2 (2): 77-98.

Docherty, T. 2011. The unseen academy. Times Higher. 10th November 2011. http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/418076.article

Evans, M. 2010. Coercion and consensus in higher education. Learning and Teaching in the Social Sciences 3 (2): 39-54.

Lynch, K. 2010. Neoliberalism and marketization: the implications for higher education. European Educational Research Journal 5 (1): 1-17.

Misra, J. and Lundquist, J. 2015. Diversity and the ivory ceiling. Inside Higher Ed, June 26th.  https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2015/06/26/essay-diversity-issues-and-midcareer-faculty-members  Accessed 3rd July 2015.

Sangaramoorthy, T. 2015. A hockey mom seeks tenure. Chronicle of Higher Education. http://chronicle.com/article/A-Hockey-Mom-Seeks-Tenure/229193/

Strathern, M. (ed) 2000. Audit Cultures: Anthropological Studies in Accountability, Ethics and the Academy. London: Routledge.

Tuchman, G. 2009. Wannabe U: Inside the Corporate University. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Fictions and Contradictions: Performance Management in Higher Education

Liz Morrish argues that the assumptions of performance management in higher education reside in the world of managerial fictions. It is a process riven with contradictions which require urgent rethinking.

Performance management has become a feature of the higher education landscape in the last decade. This definition is offered by Franco-Santos, Rivera and Bourne (2014), “At work, individuals are said to perform when they are able to achieve the objectives established by management. Organisations are thought to perform (or to be successful) when they satisfy the requirements of their stakeholders and are more effective and efficient than their competitors.” [my italics]

Recently, this document was circulated on Twitter. It is the assessment form required for performance review meetings at a non-aligned post 1992 university.

IMG_20150620_134505 (1)

It is important, as a first step to framing resistance, to recognise the presuppositions and ideologies enshrined in this document. One of the major presuppositions that underlies the use of performance/performing is that there are standard ‘key indicators’ of performance which are invariable. It is presumed that management will decide what these indicators are, and that academic staff performance can be objectively measured using them.

The most striking omission from the checklist above is any recognition of normative assumptions about academic work: that it involves teaching and research; that it is absorbing; that it involves insight, imagination, networking, diligence; that it is rather indefinable in scope, and quite possibly not a good candidate for this type of one-size-fits-all assessment.

The scope of the job, we assume, is contained within the unexpanded categories of Quality of Work; Quantity and Output. The contradiction lies in the under-informing of the designation ‘satisfactory’. In a working environment where assessments are multiple (NSS, REF, QAA, peer teaching reviews etc.), and ever more searching and fine-grained, what are we to take from ‘satisfactory’? It seems to leave open a return to a default ‘unsatisfactory’ if perceived under-performance in one of the measures should become unbundled from the totality. The semantic instability of the evaluative adjective ‘satisfactory’ means that staff will never be ‘performing’ perfectly. It will always be possible to claim that there are ‘areas for improvement’, leaving the apraisee exposed to capricious revisioning. On the issue of Quality, there are also questions of whether a manager’s expertise can always extend to appraising quality of research, particularly when the parameters for exercising judgment are far from clear.

‘Quantity’, similarly, is unrevealing. The presupposition is that more is better, so how does this sit with likely institutional policies on work-life balance and stress management? And what measures are being used? Hours logged in the classroom? Or evenings spent answering students’ questions on email. Or thank-you cards sent by finalists? Are teaching and research both considered ‘outputs’? We note an ironic choice of language in ‘quantity’, especially given the non-judgmental use of ‘engagement’ that universities usually apply to student work.

Job knowledge might be an issue for new academics in post, and so seems superfluous beyond the probation review. Digging a little deeper, though, many of us observe that ‘procedures’ are shifting and transitory under conditions of volatility in higher education regulation. Given the secrecy and lack of consultation with which those changes are imposed, and the general regulatory ‘churn’, to require familiarity, is like asking appraisees to apprehend a mirage.

Perhaps the most pernicious trait desired in this forlorn framework is ‘attitude’. By what ‘benchmark’ are we being evaluated? I would counter that there are occasions where a negative attitude is beneficial to the academic community. Are we required to embrace ineffectual managers, or unenthusiastic students? Should we tolerate abusive phone calls from parents with equanimity? My attitude is my attitude, thanks. I don’t need your evaluation. In any case, how do you suggest remedying ‘attitude’ without seriously compromising my initiative (another category), or academic standards? Never underestimate the positive power of negative thinking, is my motto.

Appearance is yet another superficial and subjective judgement. Here are my prejudices: no sweat pants, no logo t-shirts, no leggings, no flip-flops. But if you ask the students, they are generally very welcoming of lecturers who mirror the informality of their ‘customers’. Possibly, though, this dispensation applies much more to male lecturers than to women. So what is being evaluated here, apart from some manager’s notion of gender-normed corporate dress code conformity?

Attendance and punctuality suggest a rigid and compliant personality, which is undermined by the desired qualities of ‘initiative’ and ‘flexibility’. The latter, particularly, is likely to escape actual validation. Our flexibility makes itself known to family as work bleeds into leisure and domestic life. The continual peeking at email, the agenda planning that invades a run, the feelings of guilt at taking a whole Sunday off during the marking season. It makes itself known as we submit to ridiculous marking turnaround times in order to satisfy intensifying demands for more feedback. It shortens our careers.

This is the world of university performance management at its most unthinking. Cheeringly, it is beginning to be challenged even from within. According to their recent report, the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education would find this appraisal ‘not fit for purpose’. The report  distinguishes between stewardship and agency approaches to performance management, and urges universities to consider a more flexible application of these. Stewardship approaches “focus on long-term outcomes through people’s knowledge and values, autonomy and shared leadership within a high trust environment”. By contrast, “agency approaches focus on short-term results or outputs through greater monitoring and control”. I can probably guess which one seems more familiar to most academics, for whom autonomy, shared leadership and high trust working environments reside in the folklore of a previous generation.

However (to gleefully break a Govian rule), institutions with a mission that is focused on “long-term and highly complex goals, which are difficult or very costly to measure (e.g., research excellence, contribution to society)” are more likely to benefit from incorporating a stewardship approach to performance management. If we keep up the pressure, if we call out the pointless appeasement of what Power has described as ‘rituals of verification’ (1997:1), if we undermine the assumptions, then perhaps managers will start to align complexity of mission with a more delicate implementation of performance management.


Franco-Santos, M., Rivera, P. and Bourne, M. (2014), Performance Management in UK Higher Education Institutions, Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, London.


Power, Michael. 1997. The Audit Society:  Rituals of Verification. Oxford: Oxford University Press.