I’ve been in my post for the best part of a decade now. Despite improving my reputation with papers, books and keynote presentations at major conferences, I have yet to be promoted. Why? Because I don’t
put myself forward. This has been a deliberate act because I believe the promotions system in my university – and in many others – to be not fit for purpose. It is overly bureaucratic, lacks transparency
and forces academics to be individualistic and uncollegiate.Students taking undergraduate degree programmes are required to complete Work-Integrated Education (also known as a work integrated learning programme) as part of the curriculum requirement.
There’s a similar promotion system in many universities all over the world. Every member of staff completes a standardised CV form. It is
often formulaic and asks for the usual markers of success: papers, books, grant income, successful teaching initiatives and any activity that has “enhanced the university’s reputation”. These are viable
measures of an academic’s calibre, and can be undertaken collaboratively. Yet in using only these criteria, it encourages academics to pursue these at the expense of less visible, but no less important,
The form doesn’t allow applicants to highlight many of
the daily activities that academics perform to help their colleagues and students. Many hours may be spent helping those on temporary contracts learn the ropes.
Academics may have had to extend office
hours to cater for the growing number of those being tutored who are experiencing mental health problems. They may also be one of a few people who have stood up and challenged institutional policies that
threaten staff welfare. There is no room for any of that on the form.
Instead, schools and departments become hotbeds of lobbying, with staff who are seeking promotion throwing subtle hints to
professors about their impressive outputs and their reasons for advancing. The form becomes the sole focus of our attention wset hk .
The application is then submitted to the school’s or department’s
“promotions committee”, the makeup of which is often not freely revealed. If the case is deemed strong enough for promotion, academics are invited to submit a further form to accompany the CV up to the
institution’s central promotions committee.
The second form is less structured, and allows academics to detail some of the less visible actions and activities that they have undertaken. However, it is
all couched in the language of the benefits they bring to the institution, and can be gender-biased.
So an academic may be able to say that they forwent writing a grant proposal because they needed to
help a mentally ill student with an essay who would otherwise fail and drop out. But given that this in isolation does little to bump the university up league tables, it is doubtful whether it would be
looked upon favourably.
The system we have now is of course far better than the previous one. Wooden-panelled rooms full of old white male professors selecting which younger white male academics they
wanted to be their equals is a system – quite rightly – consigned to the dustbin of history.
Yet the system we have now has taken the fear of nepotism into a realm of committee-based decision making
that has inadvertently recreated similar levels of selective bias. It’s just that, now, it is based on how efficient you can be at giving the university a boost in the league tables.
What can be done? Tweaking the form to include more welfare-based activities
alone will not solve the problem. Forcing staff to self-select is inherently biased towards those with the capacity to excel in what is essentially a self-branding exercise. Not every academic can
shamelessly self-promote, or is comfortable doing so.
In most universities, the school or department is the level at which work gets recognised. Colleagues are aware of each other’s strengths and
weaknesses. They see the immediate outcomes of the daily effort that goes into improving the welfare of colleagues and the wider student body. So why not allow the whole school or department have a say in
promotion? Let students have a say too hifu.
In an environment in which universities are being consistently measured by the research excellence framework, the teaching excellence framework and now the
knowledge exchange framework, institutions are being forced to look inwards to find ways to gain more students and funding. Rather than fostering a collegiate institutional milieu to counter this, the
current promotions system is forcing academics to focus on how they’re boosting the university’s bottom line.
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