In the context of the discussions over the past day or two on Ireland’s truly crazy ‘employment control framework’, I received an email from someone who described himself as a ‘concerned citizen’ and who suggested that this was not the time for university employees to seek promotion. People all over the country, he pointed out, were being asked to make sacrifices, and it was not unreasonable in that context for academics to be asked to delay further career progression for a short time while the economy recovered. Also, he added, it was his experience that universities used promotions processes to incentivise research at the expense of good teaching; everyone knew, he suggested, that only high value research performance counted for promotion, and as a result academics were encouraged to neglect teaching and focus on getting their work published. For that reason, he concluded, a promotions moratorium might actually help to re-balance academic activities and allow the students to ‘re-emerge’ as important subjects of a lecturer’s work.
I have not yet responded to this email, as I want to give proper consideration to the issues my correspondent has raised – and here I am inviting comments from readers of this blog that may help me in the task. In the meantime, these are my own reflections.
First, the ECF context. Whether it is a good or a bad idea for staff to seek or to be offered promotion during the recession is a debatable issue; but my argument with the ECF is that while the government is free to determine what funding it is able to provide to the institutions, it is the universities’ role as autonomous institutions to decide how that money should be spent, staying within their means. Higher education institutions are under unprecedented pressures right now, as funding falls but student numbers are pushed up, and they must individually make judgements about how they can most effectively manage this situation in a way calculated to produce the best teaching and research at this time. Motivating staff is a vital need right now, and so one might conclude that offering some career progression is important enough to justify a small amount of spending (university promotions are not individually expensive, as a rule). It may require less spending on other matters, but that is a choice for the university to make in the light of its circumstances. As we now know that the ECF will last for at least six years in total, that is a very long time not to have any promotions, and by the end of the period some universities may find that they no longer have sufficient numbers of senior staff to ensure that key aspects of the work gets done.
The question of how promotions criteria should be identified and evaluated is an important one. It is not totally unfair to suggest, as my correspondent did, that research tends to trump other aspects of the job when it come to career progression, particularly at the most senior levels. Sometimes it is suggested that this is because research output is easier to measure than other quality indicators and that this has resulted in it being used as the primary yardstick. On the other hand, it could equally be said that academic excellence is reflected in the quality of scholarship, and that research best expresses this. Even universities that have decided to recognise and reward teaching quality often find that this is hard to do objectively. And yet it is becoming increasingly hard to defend promotions that seem to disregard the effort a lecturer makes to provide an excellent learning experience for his or her students.
In any case, while measuring teaching excellence may be tricky, it is by no means impossible, and some writers have suggested an interesting combination of assessment tools.
However, for this or any method of evaluating the criteria to be used for promotions to be effective it needs to enjoy the confidence of those affected, and more than anything else this means that there must be clear guidelines for promotion and a transparent application of the criteria to be used. Many universities are now working on such career development frameworks, and it should be possible to share quite a bit of good practice.
However, the key message in all of this is that promotions are a vital way of motivating staff, but they also provide an opportunity to encourage desirable working practices and goals. They are a highly significant tool in managing strategy. To suggest that they should be abandoned for the medium term would serve to undermine both a wider sense of fairness and equity and the capacity of universities to support the effort for economic recovery. In this as in other contexts, the ‘employment control framework’ makes no sense.