This week's read is:
Following in the footsteps of UK Higher Education's desire to put metrics on everything, the authors produced and ran the first "Senior Management Survey" (SMS), "investigating satisfaction with senior managers and university governance" (p. 1). Over 5000 academics responded (I have a suspicion, unconfirmed, that I was one of them; I seem to remember taking such a survey at the time the authors say they were gathering data), with the primary result being that the mean satisfaction score across all universities that had at least 25 responses (78 universities in total) was 10.54%.
Of course the first thing I did, when the reference came across twitter, was search to see where my own university falls. I was rather shocked to find it was no. 3 on the table, but less shocked when I saw that the highest satisfaction score of any surveyed university was 36.60%. That's still pretty dire.
The authors quote, anonymously, one free-text response to their survey:
We hold students accountable (through marking and attendance monitoring), students hold us accountable (through teaching evaluations and NSS), senior management holds us accountable. Why do we not get to evaluate senior management in the same way students get to evaluate us, and why can’t these necessary metrics carry at least some weight? (p. 8)
This I think hits the nail directly on the head, and is reflective of the problematic balance of power that UK HEs currently have to deal with. There is little, if any, recourse (beyond union activism) that academics have to the increasing erosion of their working conditions through systemic mismanagement.
A few things stood out to me, reading this paper:
Firstly, "academics are estimated to be one of the most surveilled groups in history" (p. 3). Working in academia, you tend to get inured to the constant measurement that is done. Of your research quality, of your student satisfaction (which is NOT teaching quality!), of your intrinsic value as a person (I jest...or do I). But this statement made me pause for a moment and reflect on the fact that I can't think of any such metrics that my partner, a computer scientist in industry, is subjected to. It also made me remember this FB post I posted last year. Why are we so closely surveyed? Why are other industries not?
Secondly, the authors did not pull any punches when they came to describing general HE management structures in the UK: "Senior management teams now appoint self-selecting and self-reproducing boards of governors that allow them to exercise largely unlimited powers that are endorsed by governing boards, usually after faux exercises in consultation (Holmwood et al. 2016)" (p. 4). It's hard not to read that and feel a sense of recognition: I know I've been involved in too many "faux exercises in consultation".
Thirdly, "the [SMS] survey sought to move the gaze from the narrow metrics of staff performance to the senior management teams who set the conditions through which staff performance becomes possible" (p. 7). Yeah. We're always being told how important it is to contextualise things, and yet there seems to be very little desire to contextualise the metrics that academics are measured by via the conditions which they must work in.
Finally, in the subsection "Work as a mental health hazard", a few quotes struck quite a chord with me, including: "my anxiety levels have reached critical to the extent that I literally find it hard to breathe. I often wake in the early hours and can’t go back to sleep because of having to make notes about things I’ve forgotten to do at work" (p. 13) and "characteristics of generalised anxiety disorder (e.g. struggling to sleep and breathe)" (p. 13). These resonated with me at a very personal level, because this describes my own experiences of the last year or two precisely, and I would not have known, otherwise, that something as simple as waking up at 3am with a huge jolt of adrenaline as your brain starts going over all the things you didn't do the day before (or the day before that or the day before that or the day before that) and all the things you need to do the next day (and the day after that and the day after that and the day after that) and that you can't shut down for at least an hour or so in order to fall back asleep (no wonder I am constantly exhausted, it's not just because I have a busy life with a partner and a kid and outside hobbies, etc.) rises to the level of problematic anxiety. I think I'm going to make an appointment with my GP to discuss this further.
Reading the article, it was hard not to recognise a lot of my own experiences within it. On the other hand, I couldn't help but think how easy it would be for the very people that should be reading it with horror and changing their practices as a result to simply disregard the content of the paper as sour grapes. And therein lies one of the biggest problems UK HE faces: The power dynamics are such that although "academics cannot wait for university leaders to rise to a challenge they do not recognise" (p. 5) it's not clear what power we have to do anything to address this challenge.
I hope the authors continue to circulate the SMS (maybe on a yearly basis?) and publish follow-up results. It would be interesting to see what longer term trends can be seen.