No Confidence in the Professional Services Transformation Project

Over the past 18 months, University of Sheffield management have been conducting an extensive series of restructures, called the Professional Services Transformation Project, which are impacting hundreds of staff members across the university. Research Services and Student Recruitment and Admissions have already undergone this process, as well as numerous smaller teams across the university.

If you know about these restructures, it has probably not escaped your attention that there has been a large amount of disquiet about them, and concern over not only their large scale and rushed pace, but also the way that they are being conducted.

Restructures are a type of change management that involve the risk of redundancies, as well as extensive changes to staff roles, teams, and services offered, at great disruption to not only the members of the team being restructured, but also to students and staff who are supported by these teams. In theory, this disruption is justified because the restructure will lead to a more efficient and logical organisation for a particular team, to ease staff workload and to increase student support. In practice, however, we are not confident that the process being followed at TUoS is reliably leading to any of these outcomes. There has been a lack of transparency about the methodology for collecting data pertaining to team and service department performance, and when affected staff have asked for information on the consultation process, the answers have been similarly opaque:

“I asked how my work had been evaluated, whether any of my user groups had been consulted, and received only a vague response saying it had been a ‘deep dive’ and that staff from one of our faculties had been asked to comment on whether they were ‘happy’ with the service. I asked what questions were asked of those staff (and students?) but received no reply.”

Any researcher who has worked with human subjects will immediately recognise that this unspecified approach to data collection and analysis would fail to pass an ethics review. Nor does it seem to represent a sound statistical sampling of the staff and student population of the university.

Especially for an organisation as complex and interconnected as a university, it is good practice to stop after restructuring one department, in order to reflect on how the restructure process went (and whether it could be improved), and to assess whether the end result has indeed led to greater efficiency and better provision of services. This shows a duty of care to staff affected by the restructure process. Again, though, this has not been the case with the current restructures, which have been scheduled at such a rapid pace as to allow essentially no time for reflection whatsoever. At present, we are nearing the end of the consultation period for the restructure of Academic Programmes and Student Engagement (APSE), a new section under Academic Services. APSE comprises a series of teams which support and enhance the strategic design and delivery of all learning & teaching in this institution. They also support and develop the university workers who deliver that teaching, through 1:1 assistance, mentoring, and networks.

“I regularly call upon the knowledge and advice of this pool of talented and dedicated individuals to strengthen and inform the work I oversee, and it’s always been reassuring to know that network exists.”

The expertise of APSE staff is especially crucial in the current political climate, which sees external pressures on the HE sector in the form of proliferating metrics and acronym-ed drivers which regulate and control rather than support and inspire. This climate cannot be navigated without dedicated, specialist staff who understand how to consolidate and enhance the teaching we do. In this context, a restructure must take special care to preserve staff expertise, and to carefully consider the implications of staffing changes for academic workloads and associated wellbeing.

Instead of prioritising existing staff expertise, the APSE restructure has seen 65 out of 121 affected staff at risk of redundancy. It has resulted in the proposed deletion of the Grade 8 Learning & Teaching Development Manager roles, to which every Faculty currently has a dedicated person. Their job is to provide tailored support to academic teams, translating and implementing institutional strategy in a disciplinary context, and providing sound pedagogical advice. It has also seen the downgrading of capacity and expertise of the team which supports the professional development of academic colleagues in learning and teaching. This team, among other things, delivers the Sheffield Teaching Assistant programme and the Advance-HE accredited Certificate in Learning & Teaching, as well as supporting new teaching staff in passing their probationary period.

At the same time, the APSE consultation period has led to the proposal for the addition of a very healthy senior management structure.

In response to concerns about whether the proposed top heavy structure for APSE is adequately equipped to respond to the aforementioned sector pressures, we are told that academics will now be “in charge of their own development”. We are told that academic teams will not require the same support from professional services as we move to a Programme Level Approach, as they will be working as self-sufficient teams. We are not told that academics will suddenly have a lot of free time in which to do this. Time-allocation aside, the devaluing of significant expertise is devastating and damaging. These staff are the hubs of huge and active professional networks across TUoS, and their institutional perspective and links to external professional networks means significant loss of capacity for Sheffield.

This approach to the APSE restructure echoes what we saw in prior restructures of Research Services and Student Recruitment and Admissions, and we have no reason to believe that the restructures planned for Autumn 2018 will be approached any differently. We are deeply concerned that the wrong decisions are being made, based on poor quality data. Resources are being cut when they should be invested in; Sheffield is not a sector leader in these areas, but the establishment of these teams several years ago, and the work they have since delivered, means we have made huge gains. That expertise is being devalued when we are most in need of it, and services that have helped us to make significant progress are being cut off. Dedicated support is being withdrawn from academic departments at a challenging time for everyone. These concerns have been expressed during each restructure over the past 18 months and are, unfortunately, being overlooked. We believe that the employer is acting negligently in its duty of care to staff, by withdrawing support from crucial staff- and student-facing services and instead substituting a top-heavy management structure that lacks the capacity and expertise to replicate these services.

The employer is required to meaningfully consult with staff through collective consultation involving trade union representation, and trained representatives of TUoS Staffside trade unions have been working very hard to support staff undergoing restructures. However, it rapidly became clear that the pace of these restructures is simply unsustainable both for our trained representatives and for management. Our repeated concerns about this have not yet been addressed, and there is no evidence that management intends to reduce either the pace or scale of the restructures. We believe that the employer is acting negligently in its duty of care to staff, in terms of the scale and speed of implementation of the Professional Services Transformation Project.

You may not be consciously aware of all of the work that your professional services colleagues do, in APSE and elsewhere, and of the impact they have on the day to day operation of this university. But we are concerned that, if the restructure process continues in the same way it was begun, we will find ourselves singing along with Joni Mitchell: “you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone”.

Sheffield UCU Committee