Friday, January 17, 2020

Resolution Read Week 3

This week's read is:

Mark Erickson, Paul Hanna, & Carl Walker, (2020), "The UK higher education senior management survey: a statactivist response to managerialist governance", Studies in Higher Education; preprint here.

It's dire.

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.


  1. I agree with the estimation of academics being constantly evaluated. Evaluation comes in the forms of surveys, questionnaires, observations, feedback, and a myriad of other methods. Why are academics so closely scrutinized when those in other industries are not? This is a compelling question, because surely continuous improvement and progress is desired in every discipline; but it seems to be more constantly, deliberately sought for in the world of academia- perhaps because all other disciplines grow out of education. Without constant improvement in education, there could not be success in any other discipline.

    I recently successfully defended my dissertation, which was four and a half years in the making in pursuit of a doctorate degree in instructional leadership. The study was a qualitative phenomenological exploration of leaders' lived experiences with seeking and receiving feedback from subordinates. When thinking of feedback, most think of it going from the top-down; most leaders do not generally seek, willing receive, and apply feedback from those they are commissioned to lead.

    Researched revealed much had been studied and written about feedback from leader to subordinate, from trainer to teacher, or in other words- from the top-down; and little has been explored looking at feedback going the other direction- from subordinate to leader, from teacher to administrator, or in other words- from the bottom-up.

    The findings of the study were intriguing. Most leaders claim to view openness and vulnerability as desirable qualities to have in leadership. The study found most leaders desire to be and to have vulnerable, open, listening leaders. Counterarguments found say relationships are detrimental to progress fostering feedback but personal experience and research challenge these claims and show close relationships are essential to seeking, giving, and receiving feedback effectively.

    In leadership roles you have had, what has been your experience with seeking and receiving feedback from those you lead?

    Interested to hear your perspectives on this.


  2. Hello, I recently completed and successfully defended my doctoral dissertation. It was a qualitative phenomenological study on subordinate to leader feedback. Twelve leaders from sundry age groups, geographic locations, and experience base were interviewed to achieve environmental triangulation. Many studies have been done looking at feedback from leader to subordinate, from trainer to teacher- or in other words- from the top down. Little has been explored looking at feedback going the other direction- from subordinate to leader, from teacher to administrator, or in other words- from the bottom up. One finding of my study is that vulnerability is a desirable attribute in leadership. I'm interested to know your thoughts on this topic. In your experience, does leaders opening themselves up to vulnerability by seeking and receiving feedback from subordinates strengthen or weaken workplace relationships and job performance?

    1. Congratulations on defending your thesis. I'm of the opinion that the only strong leader is the one who is willing to listen to the people whom he leads and take their concerns seriously.

    2. Thank you Sara :)! My research and experience has shown me the same thing. In my research, I found some strong, convincing counterarguments claiming there is no room for friendships in supervisory roles- and if leaders open themselves up to vulnerability, then respect and feedback are compromised. However, my research and personal experience challenges those claims. There are few leaders who actively seek, gratefully receive, and readily apply feedback from those they lead but I have found that the very best leaders are the one's who do just that; as you stated- "the only strong leader is the one who is willing to listen to the people whom he leads..." What has helped you to gain that perspective?
      Thank you for your response and insight Sara :).

    3. Mostly personal experience: The leaders that have been able to engender respect are ones who are willing to admit when they are wrong, are able to listen without prejudice to the other side, and can change their mind when necessary.