Under-performance in universities

In the course of this Thursday I attended several meetings involving prominent people from government and industry. A recurring theme of the discussions was under-performance in the university sector, and it became clear that some of those present had strong views about this. It was felt that lecturers had only a few contact hours with students per week, and not much else to do, and that they often did not pay significant attention to student needs. They also assumed or believed that most academic staff disappear for months during the summer to enjoy extended holidays.

Not many academics would recognise this description, and most would be offended by it. But on the other hand we need to be aware of the fact that what I heard is a widely-shared perception in the outside world, and this needs to worry us, not least because it militates against significant support for universities when it comes to debates about funding and resourcing.

Academic life is not what it once was. It may indeed be true that, a few decades ago, someone taking up an academic career could expect very significant personal autonomy in their work, and a workload that would not be excessively taxing. Those who did no research of any significant volume – and that would have been a large majority – might indeed have expected to take much of the summer off. In short, it was not an uncomfortable life for many.

Those days are long gone. Academic life is now high pressure. Universities expect faculty to have a challenging workload in their teaching, and to be available to students at regular times for consultation and advice; but they also expect them to further their research and to have regular publications as a result, in high quality journals or published by renowned publishers. It would be rare now for an academic to take a summer holiday of more than three weeks.

But if we are honest, we would also have to admit that in higher education – as in most professions – there is a small number of people who do not perform to those standards, and we must expect that as part of the movement to increase university accountability for the expenditure of public money more questions will be asked about this. It will also be expected that we have ways of managing those (we hope rare) cases of visible under-performance.

If we are to attract support, both from politicians and other stakeholders, we need to take this agenda seriously. But we also need to be strong in defence of the dedication and commitment of the overwhelming majority of academic staff, who now work in what is often a stressful environment and who have managed to maintain and enhance the quality of our system.

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8 Comments on “Under-performance in universities”

  1. Paul F Says:

    Well said, but let’s see some action. I think if you are to attract any support for your cause from students too – especially fee-paying ones – then you need to address the issue of the performance of academic (AND non-academic) staff. Academic performance should be tied to stated objectives based measurable results just like any other business. The disquiet about academic performance is largely in relation to undergraduate teaching and the fact that nothing is done about it ever.

    For example, I don’t doubt you that the majority of academics take their work seriously and are committed. But, there is a significant number who are not interested in teaching, incapable of doing so, or simply shouldn’t be let. Would it be tolerated in a fee-paying secondary school? No. So why tolerate it in DCU or anywhere else?

    Unfortunately universities are set up to facilitate poor academic performance by reaching for the cloak (gown) of “tradition” and “the priority of research”, and those who perform well as teaching do so in spite of such structures, not because. We all know the type who hides away for years producing no research, no papers, no books, often living in free rooms, those Tolkeinesque figures who scurry across the courtyard ocassionally on their way to a rarely used office or the campus bar, all without any reproach. Or the lecturers who go soft and hand out marks without even really bothered to assess whether they are deserved or not because “universities are really only about research anyway”. Or the joke of lecturers who known damn well that programming assignments handed out to business students are in fact outsourced by them to comp sci students, and yet are marked and passed year after year. or the offensive, sexist, rude lecturer who, coincidentally happens to not have one iota about anything. Or the practice of grouping individual students into “teams” (usually under the vague excuse that it teaches real world job skills) to collaborate on joint assignments so that a lecturer has a fraction of the number of papers to mark and no individual contribution can actually be assessed. Free-for-all tenure and non-performance related pay, promotion, and progression all need to be addressed. Now that would be a real world job experience.

  2. Ultan Says:

    The flip side of dealing with under-performance is that those who perform well and better should be recognised widely, and rewarded for their efforts, too. Seems like a good performance appraisal system could do a lot. Any why not have all stakeholders involved in feedback? Including students? And fee-payers? Employers? Seems like a good way to eliminate the need for sites like Iratemyprofessor.com etc., too.

    I’ve known some terrible academics (and still do), but we must remember the great ones too. I vaguely recall this one brilliant chap in TCD who lectured in Industrial Relationship Management or Laborious Laws or something to do with workers and strikes (remember Grunwick?), but of course he left….

  3. Wendymr Says:

    I’d love to know where the university PaulF’s referring to is. They’d have my CV in their mailbox by tomorrow!

    We all know the type who hides away for years producing no research, no papers, no books, often living in free rooms,

    Really? Beyond Oxbridge, the idea of ‘free rooms’ is an anachronism. Even in TCD very, very few academic staff live in free accommodation, and where they do it’s in return for supervisory duties.

    Over the past fifteen years or so, initiatives such as those you mention have been implemented across higher education: performance management, research quality exercises and other individual and group performance indicators, for starters. Cost-cutting and staff-reduction exercises have also seen the departure of what my own former vice-chancellor liked to call ‘under-performing’ staff. Teaching and learning quality initiatives are also very much a feature of the modern university. I’ve been out of the field for the past four years, but before I left I was director of a degree programme and very well aware of regulations and standards expected from teaching, marking and feedback to students. The days when a student could be given a grade with no commentary are long gone.

    One of the areas which does need addressing, in my view, is the expectation that every academic must excel in both research and teaching, be available to students and also be a pretty damn efficient administrator. The best researchers are often not the best teachers, and vice versa, yet if an academic wants to concentrate on teaching and scholarship and spend less time on research and publication this is considered under-performing or less meritorious. Plus, of course, the heavy weight of expectations on both sides and increased academic workloads, including supervision of postgraduate research, means that to be excellent at both many academics work 60+ hours a week.

    I have no doubt that there’s variability in performance among academic staff, but if we were to measure today’s ‘under-performance’ against what might have been considered under-performance in the 1970s, say, might today’s slackers have been yesterday’s workaholics?

  4. Michael Scott Says:

    In fact its quite easy for any concerned citizen to see exactly how much teaching we do in DCU – there is no need for speculation. Go to http://www.dcu.ie/timetables/time3.shtml and pick a name from the drop-down list, and click to retrieve her/his teaching timetable for the semester. For example to see my timetable, click on Scott, M.

  5. Holly Says:

    Some observations:
    @wendymr- Academics are working 60 hours a week? Doing what exactly? It’s certainly not on site or on campus or facing undergraduate students. Walk around the corridors of any university in Dublin before 10 or after 4 in the winter and take a look in those darkened offices.

    We all have aspects of our jobs we don’t like, and some parts we are better than at than others. It isn’t up to academics to define their own terms of employment they way they like and then expect to be immune from market forces or the rules that every person accepts as part of the job. Here’s the kicker: It’s a job, and if academics are underperforming then they should be given the opportunity to improve and if they don’t then the consequences must be faced including termination. Don’t like it? Get another job. Pretty basic stuff, really.

    @michaelscott – The argument is not about the amount of teaching done. Where are the the public quality metrics for us concerned citizens and the comments of your students?

  6. universitydiary Says:

    I did think that this post would get some heated feedback, and it did. The comments in some ways underscore the point I was making about how we need to persuade our wider body of stakeholders that we are managing this issue.

    That said, there are underperformers in every profession. Like the bank official who recently couldn’t tell a friend of mine what had happened to the money she had lodged to her account and who was then unavailable for further questions. Or various Bills (see my earlier post) who couldn’t and still can’t tell me what my utility bill is and what has happened to the meter readings. And so on. Universities will never be more perfect than anyone else.

    As Wendy pointed out, there are now dozens of frameworks for assessing and verifying quality in universities, and they are rigorously applied, and involve student feedback throughout. The outputs from this are publicly available – see e.g. the website of the Irish Universities Quality Board. What business organisation publishes its internal quality reviews so that the wider public can read them?

    But we still have to accept that under-performance is an issue, and as a sector we are working on new ideas as to how we might address that.

  7. Wendymr Says:

    Holly:
    Academics are working 60 hours a week? Doing what exactly? It’s certainly not on site or on campus or facing undergraduate students. Walk around the corridors of any university in Dublin before 10 or after 4 in the winter and take a look in those darkened offices.

    I can only comment from my own knowledge and experience of academic colleagues across the UK, and some in Ireland. One of the difficulties in convincing observers about heavy workloads is the lack of visibility of much of it. Academics don’t only work on academic premises. Just about every member of a university faculty I know (including myself at the time) has a home office where work obligations continue, sometimes marking and teaching preparation, but mostly research and writing. Why? Because there are fewer interruptions – from colleagues, students and the telephone – and I’ll acknowledge because one’s home is frequently more comfortable than an office in a usually not-very-well-constructed university building. Or a shared office, as is common on some campuses. Studies of workload from time to time over the past 15-20 years have consistently shown 50-60 hours per week, and independent studies of work-related stress and illness (see the Work-Life Balance Centre’s 24-7 surveys, for example) show academics ranking highly among incidence of stress-related illness and consideration of resigning even without a job to go to (a former colleague walked away from a successful career to breed sheep instead, and another quit to retrain as a plumber).

    I’m certainly not denying that it’s possible to find under-performance in academia, as in every other occupational field, but suggesting that its prevalence has at times been exaggerated for political gain (not necessarily in this blog) and that what might be seen as under-performance in the standards of the current climate – for example, failure to reache the requisite number of peer-reviewed papers in increasingly-crowded internationally-rated journals while at the same time repeatedly obtaining research grants and getting excellent ratings as a teacher – would 20 or 30 years ago be seen as normal, if not exceptional, performance.

  8. Ruth Says:

    The current staff in Irish universities are absolutely mediocre, and what’s worse is that they actively prevent brilliant candidates from entering the system lest they show them up. In fact, many excellent candidates have been drive out of the system by colleague’s jealousy. Just look at all the edited books featured disingenuously as single-authored monographs, the lack of journal articles etc. They are seriously underperforming, working at a snail’s pace, and sanctions must be put in place for the future.

    Recruitment in departments should be left to outside consulting firms, who have no hidden interests in hindering best candidates. I really think the government should hire research professors, exceptional candidates with outstanding track records, who could energise these moribund departments, and also oversee recruitment.


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