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Student support and the research environment at universities: UPDATE

UPDATE 22nd January 2020.

It seems that the toxic culture that infects our workplaces is not confined to universities and academia. There have
been two more reports this week that further underline the wider impact of stress and bullying in the workplace in the UK. The results of a survey by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) shows that about a quarter of employees think their company turns a blind eye to workplace bullying and harassment. In the results of the survey of 2,211 employees, ‘Managing conflict in the modern workplace’ (pdf file), the words ‘bully’ or ‘bullying’ appears 109 times in the 47-page report. Over 50% of men and women said that they were "being undermined or humiliated in my job". Also, fear of retribution is stopping the problem from being addressed. One noted that "Fear is the biggest factor," and that "You're singled out when something happens to you." I could add that I have observed colleagues running away when they see a fellow worker being bullied by management. They are then isolated with no support; exactly the effect the bully was looking for.

The result is extreme stress and poor productivity. Managers who promote such an atmosphere should be ‘called out’. The impact is massive as reported in another report released by Deloitte today. In ‘Mental health and employers Refreshing the case for investment’ (pdf file) Of the 2,640 people in the survey, 24% reported that they had suffered “Bullying or harassment from managers”. The economic impact of stress is put at a staggering £45 billion per year for UK employers. The impact on workers and their families is a national disgrace. Young employees entering the workforce from education should not be expected to tolerate it. Yet the problems seem to have become ‘normal’. This seems the case in universities where many academics managing staff and research groups have little or no training in how to manage people. In one case a senior leader in a UK university dismissed bullying, that included a physical threat to a colleague, as "there is nothing wrong with robust management". I pointed out that if such an incident happened on the street it would be treated as a criminal offence.

Original post from 17th January 2020.

TEFS takes a somewhat tangential route this week to look at the working environment of staff in our Universities. On the face of it, the relationship to student provision and equality would seem tenuous. However, it is important to look across all the university operations and their interrelationships to understand the various pushes and pulls that stretch the fabric of many of our world-renowned institutions. Whilst there is no direct impact on students, the knock-on effects of pressure on academic staff have been profound. Now is the time for a radical rethink of how universities are funded and the career structures of staff. This must account for differential costs for laboratory science and other disciplines if it is to be transparent and effective.

A report in the Guardian last week raised eyebrows by indicating that a third of staff at Cambridge University had been the subject of bullying. The results of a joint survey by unions Unite, Unison, and the University and College Union are convincing as the responses were from 3000 people; about 25% of all staff. Women and ‘assistants’ seemed to bear the greatest burden, but the problems were certainly not confined to them. Twenty-one per cent of staff said they had been subjected to bullying or harassment, while 23% reported having witnessed such behaviour towards other staff. To outsiders, it seems incredible that the home of the ‘glittering prizes’ and the ‘City of perspiring dreams’ (a term coined by the student’s union alternative prospectus like Oxford’s ‘dreaming spires’) had descended to such a low level. Many of the older generation fondly remember universities as havens of learning away from the real world. Of course, universities were never isolated from real-world problems, but if they returned to their old alma mater, they would find the place unrecognisable today. What could be going wrong? Surely a university should be the best place in the world to work; teeming with young people, new ideas and exciting discourse. Apparently not as more talented people are seeking a way out.

Then, to add to the story this week, the eagerly awaited report of a survey by the Wellcome Trust (a major player in Biomedical and Bioscience research funding in the UK supporting research costs, PhD students and Post-Doctoral researchers) on researchers and their research environment emerged (‘What researchers think about the culture they work in’)

It was a bombshell with jaw-dropping statistics. The problems are not confined to Cambridge and there is a deep crisis in confidence about how researchers at all levels are managed at our universities. The adverse impact of this on the so-called ‘student experience’ has been gathering slowly over the years and has been profound. Now is the time to act decisively and repair the damage.

What Wellcome found under the rock.

The results of the survey of 4,267 researchers on-line and in 94 interviews are depressing and shocking. They reveal a culture of unhealthy competition, stress and bullying. It seems most research laboratories are now determined to succeed at any cost to the researchers.

The Wellcome director, Jeremy Farrar, stated that “These results paint a shocking portrait of the research environment – and one we must all help change. The pressures of working in research must be recognised and acted upon by all, from funders, to leaders of research and to heads of universities and institutions”. As a matter of urgency, Wellcome is supporting Culture Café discussion sessions over the coming months to open up the debate. This will inform any radical changes that are needed, and these must be enabled from the top and, in particular, by the government. The report’s conclusions have many recommendations, but it would take a radical overhaul of the whole system to achieve the necessary change. In response to the Augar Report last year, TEFS called for a review of all university funding; not only student fees with “It is therefore essential that a wider funding review is carried out with considerable urgency” (TEFS 30th May 2019 ‘Augar stirs up the system: The ripples will go far beyond his remit’). The findings of the Wellcome Trust make this even more urgent and the impact on staff, their careers and working conditions must become a key aspect of the review.

What Wellcome found comes as little surprise to those in the front line. The survey largely covered laboratory sciences and mostly Biomedical and Biosciences. The pressure on staff in their laboratories may be different and perhaps greater that those in other disciplines; but the lessons remain the same. Managing a complex laboratory is an extra burden but careful and understanding management should mitigate the additional pressures. Even bearing in mind the work environment of most of those surveyed, it is still surprising that 78% thought that the high levels of competition have created unkind and aggressive conditions. A worrying (23%) have felt pressured by their supervisor to produce a particular result and 43% thought that their workplace puts more value on metrics than on research quality. This last figure gets closest to the root of the problem. A metrics driven culture is the most likely explanation for a staggering 61% having witnessed bullying or harassment and 43% have experienced it themselves. Few felt safe speaking out (37%) and 53% have sought, or have wanted to seek, professional help for depression or anxiety. It is no wonder that only 29% feel secure in pursuing a research career.

The findings are not new.

It has been established for many years that the university sector harbours a toxic culture of bullying and stress. In 2008, UCU conducted a comprehensive UK wide survey of academic staff (see UCU November 2008 Disharmony at work says survey on day of bullying conference’). It uncovered a shocking insight into how the situation had deteriorated. My own employer conducted their own survey of all staff in 2010; believing the UCU survey could not be correct. The results were even worse. They were supressed for two years and only released to the local UCU representatives after UCU conducted a further detailed UK wide survey in 2012 (see UCU ‘2012 UCU stress survey’). That survey was based upon the Health and Safety Executive ‘HSE Management Standards Indicator Tool’ that covers “working conditions known to be potential causes of work-related stress”. Many institutions ‘red lined’ on negative responses for relationships, stress and bullying to such an extent that urgent action should have been taken or even enforced.

How does this affect students?

On the face of it, it might seem that undergraduate students might not be affected, at least not directly, simply because they do not see what is going on behind the scenes. In my 37 years as a member of staff in a Russell Group university, I can confirm students do not get the whole picture. In my case, I would never bring such problems to their attention. They have enough to worry about. However, they are not blind to problems that come into view sometimes. They observe that many of the frontline teaching staff are temporary teaching assistants and that they very rarely or even do not see the senior staff. This phenomenon is more likely in the so called ‘research intensive’ universities. If a member of the teaching staff appears stressed and lacks confidence, this transmits quickly to the students who are also less confident. Any respect for the authority of their lecturer dissipates in seconds when a member of the admin’ staff enters the lecture room and hands out 'lecturer assessment' forms to be collected directly by them. This crass and demeaning practice undermines any authority that has been built up. If the assessment is on line, many students simply ignore it.

The effect of increased pressure on staff that have to balance teaching with research targets is a simple one. Teaching takes the back seat and is of less importance. Support for students close to the subject area may be lacking as they are referred to overburdened ‘student support services’ that seem distant. My experience over 37 years of teaching laboratory science is that most students with problems want expert resolution and help from their lecturers and not find themselves sent back and forth from advice centrally. I can attest to the fact that the burden on staff has risen enormously as student numbers increased.

The student experience changed for ever.

The inexorable expansion of student numbers since the Robbins Report of 1963 has been accompanied by universities, Polytechnics and new universities playing catch up in the provision of resources. In 1950, only 3.4% of school leavers went to university. The post Robbins expansion changed this to 8.4% by 1970 and this continued through the 1980s to 19.3% by 1990. With the expansion of the new universities since 1994, we are almost at a 50% participation rate now. From 1981, there was a continued increase in student numbers as the effects of the deep budget cuts of 1981 followed through. This period of stress on staff as their numbers fell set the tone for what we see today. Students who were in Higher Education over that time saw problems emerge in large classes and the overall provision decline. It was a very difficult time, and by 1987 several institutions were in severe financial difficulties. My employer, Queen’s University shed many staff at that time to balance the books. This happened across the sector as student numbers increased and it was very traumatic. My former university in Cardiff went under and only survived by merging with the University of Wales Institute of Science and Technology who bailed them out. It led to a new reality for staff and students alike and we are still living with the consequences.

Selectivity, RAE and REF lie at the root of the problems.

It was the brutal management of universities that emerged around 1987 that affected culture and environment the most. Its roots are firmly from that time.

The cuts were accompanied by the idea that funding for research should be selective. This created a false market in the sector that persists today. The newly appointed chair of the Research Grants Committee (UGC), Peter Swinterton-Dyer, felt he had to protect the system by making the allocation of the research component of university funding more transparent and, importantly,  more selective. The seeds were sown and germination started. The so-called dual support system had prevailed up to then and it ensured a balance between more general support overall from the UGC and specific competitive project and programme support from the Research Councils. With the introduction selectivity for general support came an inevitable change in management culture.

The one thing that the introduction of selective research funding was inevitably going to do was inject direct competition for all funding. The screw has gradually been tightening on staff since then. This has been a very gradual process since the more benign Research Selectivity Exercise began in 1986. However, the warning signs were there back then as research output was linked to income.

Developing from a relatively hands-off approach, the Research Selectivity Exercise started to grow. It developed via expansion into the Research Assessment Exercise in 1992 through to the oppressive bureaucracy of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) from 2007 (see Evolution of the REF. Times Higher Education October 2013 for a compact and excellent overview)

The Research selectivity exercise under the UGC went largely unnoticed by most staff and students alike. Its aims seemed benign as a means to add some accountability into the university funding system. However, the last REF of 2014 determined how £1.58 billion was to be allocated (see Times Higher Education February 2025 ‘Research funding formula tweaked after REF 2014 results‘). Importantly, the safety net for STEM subjects was removed; further squeezing laboratory science. The next REF exercise is set for 2021 and will be met by further pressure on staff to hit metric research targets.

The impact of this profound culture change on staff was not properly assessed at any stage. In 1999, I wrote an article in Nature, ‘Pressure to publish stifles young talent’ in response to the likely impact on research careers. I tracked the publication records of highly successful scientists over their careers and uncovered clear evidence of a pattern of high quality, but low numbers of publications early on. However, by then the handing over of management to ‘administrators’, who demanded metric driven performance targets, seems to have proceeded unabated. All of the anonymous eminent scientists I studied would not have survived ‘performance management’ in the RAE and REF era. This is a sobering thought about a past time that most young researchers will not experience. They are less likely to take risks in pursuing radical ideas and the negative impact is now embedded in the cultures

Management response, provision for students and laboratory science technical support.

With large sums of income linked to research performance, the managements at most universities immediately sought to maximise their reputations and income through the use of the RAE and then REF. This continues today in the run up to the 2021 REF exercise.

One of the consequences of cuts that go back to the 1980s was the gradual erosion of technical support across the sciences. This was exacerbated greatly by the introduction of Research Selectivity, RAE and REF. It was not an immediate effect but happened slowly. Most institutions that were very research active decided not to replace technical support staff and instead opted to increase the numbers of academic staff doing research. This impacted upon the level of practical training students acquired. Increasing student numbers meant that contact time in practical work was reduced as laboratories were not large enough. Some institutions retained a little technical support for teaching and left the academic staff to fend for themselves in laboratories that were becoming increasingly complex. I was right in the middle of these changes as my role altered. Laboratory safety management fell directly on me. So too did responsibility for complex and expensive equipment and facilities. With little technical support in practical terms, the burden fell in turn onto post-docs and post graduates who had little of the training and experience needed.

A personal view.

My laboratory project funding was all from outside grants from around 1987; there was no ‘dual support’ in practical terms as far as I was concerned. I brought in millions of £s and €s over many years and at any one time supervised between 10 and 20 researchers in my laboratory. With very little technical help, and funding pressures mounting, it now seems a miracle we managed to survive. My role as supervisor and mentor slowly changed to that of a 'guardian at the gates'. I found I was mainly there to take the full blast of management clumsiness (for want of a better word) to protect the researchers from excessive worries and pressures that were unproductive (to be fair, and as an aside, the management of my old employer has changed radically over the last two years. It is clearly more enlightened and thankfully a very different atmosphere and culture now exists). However, at the time this was a relentless task. Some colleagues failed to see the dangers and failed in their responsibility by transmitting their concerns down to the people working for them or being supervised by them. Expecting ‘the results tomorrow’ and long hours started to dominate. Senior management imposed draconian expectations and performance on staff that transmitted down to the lowly PhD student being pressured in turn. This is how the bullying starts. Many staff sought to avoid any teaching burden as the time pressures on them mounted. 

I refused to do this and enjoyed my teaching role. But this often took me into dangerous levels of hours worked; often 70 to 80 hours per week. But then management started to see teaching as a ‘trivial’ pursuit’ and support for students declined with casual temporary staff contracts emerging fast (see TEFS 29th June 2018 ‘Research and Teaching: The price of researchers not teaching’). I saw the benefits of combining teaching and research at a high level for staff and students alike. Breaking that link was a step too far. At a very senior level, the management referred many times to ‘sweating their assets’. This meant getting people like me to acquire even more research funding. Research strategies presented to us with no consultation mentioned little about research. Instead, funding and metrics targets were set out in simple terms. It was as intellectually sterile as you could imagine.

The fault for the current mess lies firmly at the door of successive governments. This goes back to 1981 and there have been multiple warning signs along the way. Wellcome have made a bold move in seeking to redress the balance. A fundamental review is needed. The promised report on the review of the Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) from 2018 has yet to emerge and its delay is concerning. A simple principle should be that to achieve excellent teaching requires committed and confident staff who are also excellent. It's not ‘rocket surgery’ to mix the metaphor.

Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics.


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