Developing university careers

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.

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8 Comments on “Developing university careers”

  1. Jilly Says:

    Ferdinand, do you have any data showing the relative distribution of academics across the various grades (lecturer, senior lecturer etc) between Ireland and the UK? I know it’s a bit complicated by the existence of Readers in the UK, but some basic comparisons ought to be possible, if the figures exist?

    I ask because we hear a LOT these days about Irish academics being paid more than their British equivalents. However, that comparison only makes sense if you also compare distribution across the various ranks. My anecdotal sense is that there is a far higher proportion of British academic staff at the rank of Senior Lecturer and above than is the case in Ireland.

    Long before the ECF or the recession in general, promotion in Irish universities was phenomenally difficult by comparison to Britain. In particular promotion from Lecturer to Senior Lecturer (let alone promotion to Professor) was always like hen’s teeth. This means that although Lecturers in the British system are paid much less than in Ireland, it’s a rank which people don’t expect to stay on for more than, say 6 years in the UK, before being made a Senior Lecturer. By contrast, in Ireland it’s not unusual for hard-working and respected academics to stay on the Lecturer scale for 10-12 years at least. Equally, there are SO many Professors in the UK system by comparison to Ireland – it may be fair to say that any competent British academic would have a good chance of being a Professor by the age of 45, whereas in Ireland perhaps only a tiny percentage of academics would expect to be Professors at retirement age.

    So this was already an issue before the ECF. Add the promotions ban of the ECF to this equation, and you now have Irish academics at Lecturer level who have more research/publications, teaching experience and senior admin roles than some of their UK peers at Professorial level, let alone Senior Lecturer. Given that academia is a very international profession, this is going to cause significant losses of talented and committed staff from the Irish system.

  2. Anna Notaro Says:

    *there are SO many Professors in the UK system …– it may be fair to say that any competent British academic would have a good chance of being a Professor by the age of 45* I find that difficult to agree with Jilly given the abundance of (occasionally long) fixed term contracts in the UK system, and not because I have not made it to Professor myself, yet 🙂

    • Jilly Says:

      The abundance of fixed term (or simply hourly-paid) academic staff is a serious and growing problem in both the UK and Ireland, and I don’t underestimate it as an issue. However, the issue of promotion for permanent staff is an issue too, albeit a separate one.

      • anna notaro Says:

        the issues are not separate, but closely connected in that (long) fixed term contracts have an impact in the long run on the individual lecturer’s career progression. As for the many Professors in the UK system, I suspect one of the reasons for that is the impact of the research assessment exercise (

        • Jilly Says:

          Anna, I entirely agree about the reason for the many Professors in the UK system. My point is that it skews the (endless) discussions about Irish academics being paid more than British academics.

  3. Perry Share Says:

    On promotion criteria, I think that the system developed in some Australian institutions is good: allocate a percentage (say 20%) to each of research, teaching and community service/management activity, and then allow the applicant to nominate where the remainder (40%) of the weighting should be applied. So a person who has put all their eggs in the ‘teaching’ basket can maximise their impact within 60% of the indicator, but will also need to demonstrate some research activity and administrative/community participation to compete effectively.

    And of course, this process has to be completely transparent, how could it be otherwise?

    • Jilly Says:

      The Australian model does seem a good one. I think most Irish universities use more fixed percentages for each of the three categories. But it’s not the weightings that I would consider to be the problem in the Irish system – it was where the bar for achievement seemed to have been set, and the total number of promotions (against the number of applications made) that were being granted.

      By the time the promotions ban came into operation, the achievements necessary to move from Lecturer to Senior Lecturer in Ireland were more or less equivalent to the acheivements necessary to be made Professor in the UK. I know of individuals (I can only speak in terms of humanities promotion criteria here) with 10 years teaching experience, 2 or more monographs and extensive college admin experience, who were being rejected for Senior Lecturer. Whereas a friend of mine in a Russell Group university in the UK was made a Senior Lecturer a few years ago on the basis of 5 years’ teaching experience, one monograph which had already been published when he was hired, and taking on the role of MA Tutor for 2 years. It doesn’t compare.

  4. PatrickL Says:

    I can understand that any member of the public would feel bothered by the idea of a public servant receiving a substantial pay rise at a time of serious economic crisis.

    That said, let’s not forget that Irish academics have made sacrifices. Most of us have had a 30% cut to our net pay, and are dealing with substantially greater numbers of students. Realistically, a promotion for most Irish academics will mean that they might get back to taking home what they were earning in 2008. No-one is entitled to a promotion unless they have earned one, so all that is being asked here is for the right to have our work evaluated, and rewarded if it’s considered good enough.

    I do understand why many ‘concerned citizens’ might have problems with that idea, and I do respect their concerns. Nevertheless, there are a number of difficulties with an outright ban on promotions in universities.

    Realistically, as is pointed out above, VERY few Irish academics ever make it to professor, and for every senior lecturer post in my institution, there will usually be at least 8 applicants. So, in other words, 100 people will have been working hard to meet the criteria for a senior lecturer post, but only 12 will be successful in getting one. With a promotions system in place, you motivate 100 people but pay for 12. Without a promotions system, you don’t have to pay for the 12 senior lecturers – but you do lose the goodwill and enthusiasm of the 100.

    Another issue is that the senior jobs won’t disappear. People who retire are usually senior academics, and thus will have senior responsibilities. Is it reasonable to ask someone to take on a senior job but not give them the senior job title? Under ordinary circumstances, definitely not.

    Of course we aren’t living with ordinary circumstances, so to my mind the major reason not to ban promotions is that by doing so we will lose staff. As the UK heads towards its next research exercise, it’s already clear that staff with good publication records here in Ireland are being quietly approached with a view to moving (I’ve had three such approaches myself in the last 12 months – all for jobs that would pay more, with better working conditions). So there will be job opportunities in the UK, despite the similar problems there. Most people I know want to stay in Ireland, as I do myself, especially at this awful time – but if you’re getting job offers from abroad, and know that you won’t be promoted in Ireland any time before 2015, it will be hard to keep saying ‘no’. This will be especially true for people who will be forced to take on the work of retired professors but won’t be allowed take on the appropriate job title as well.

    And what then of people who secure major funding, especially from the EU? If an academic gets a major research grant at EU level, it often happens that he/she will be headhunted by other EU institutions. With the ECF, Irish universities will be unable to hang on to such staff.

    So it’s really worth noting that academia is one of the most globalised professions in Ireland – far more than almost any other branch of the public service. People can move easily, and will do so.

    In fairness, the cases I outline above will happen only in a very small number of situations. But the point I’m trying to make here is that the ECF is too inflexible, and that banning promotions altogether is foolish for that reason.

    Finally, I know there is a perception that teaching and research are not equally valued by promotions committees. I’m not sure how much actual evidence there is to support that view, but it may well be true. But again – why block all promotions as a result? Why not reform promotions to give equal weighting to teaching? Personally, I think good research will always lead to good teaching, but my point here is that the problem mentioned by the ‘concerned citizen’ won’t be solved by banning promotions.

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