Struggle for top research grades fuels bullying among university staff

Guardian 16th December

More than half of university staff say recent policy changes have caused an increase in bullying – and that institutions aren’t doing enough to tackle the issue

81% of Russell Group university members said REF has had a negative impact on bullying.

The fevered build up to this month’s university research audit has exposed academics to an atmosphere of competitiveness and bullying, according to a survey by the Guardian’s higher education network.

More than half of UK university staff questioned by the network said recent policy changes such as the introduction of the research excellence framework – a new process for measuring the quality of academic research – had fuelled campus bullying.

The survey questioned over 1,300 university staff who have experienced bullying at work, half of which are based at UK institutions. The research did not attempt to measure the scale of bullying, but asked respondents about its causes and how well universities deal with such behaviour.

It found that, around the world, 70% of university staff did not feel their institution takes bullying seriously. This was the case for 72% of university staff based in the UK.

But while UK and non-UK staff were equally dissatisfied with their universities’ responses, the type of bullying varied by country. In the UK, 58% were bullied by their line manager, with many respondents pointing to a managerialist culture – outside of the UK, staff were more likely to be bullied by a colleague.

In the survey, one female respondent commented that management structures have created a “pervasive culture of fear” among university staff. Working in a post-1992 university, she added: “Constant restructuring, constant changes in policy and procedures, and the constant increase in demands have created a state of acute anxiety and utter demoralisation for all staff at every level. I have never known the situation to be this bad.”

In the UK, almost one in 10 people who had experienced bullying had endured violent or aggressive behaviour, while 26% were set uncontracted tasks. A third had experienced threats or comments about job security without foundation.
Some 27% said they were bullied online, where many were exposed to insults and persistent gossip, and 6% even reported having their personal pictures distorted.


Martin Hall, vice-chancellor of the University of Salford says the findings should not be ignored. “The combination of increased demands, diminished resources and a growing tendency to forget that the primary purpose of education is to develop people’s capabilities is damaging the institutional culture of universities in many parts of the world.”

He adds: “Universities should be led by ethical values, and values should shape behaviour at all levels of leadership and management. Bullying is a symptom of the breakdown of values and a shared sense of purpose.”

Many resondents said that bullying has significantly impacted on their health and wellbeing. In the UK, 86% reported experiencing stress, anxiety or panic attacks, 23% reported raised blood pressure, and 28% said they had increased their consumption of alcohol or tobacco.

Some 41% of UK staff said they had received either counselling or medical treatment as a result of bullying, while 18% had been signed off sick.

Although universities have been encouraged to sign up to sector-wide agreements to support and create a positive environment for researchers, these are ultimately voluntary and there are concerns that universities are not doing enough to protect their staff in a “publish or perish” research culture.

An equalities and diversity consultant who worked at a leading Russell Group university for 10 years, says the level of harassment and bullying she witnessed became increasingly noticeable.

She says members of staff who came to speak to her about being bullied felt too scared to report it and believed that HR were there to just support management.

“Harassment, bullying and discrimination is embedded in the fabric of everyday practices and I have not seen any compelling evidence that universities are making any real effort to do anything differently,” she added. “The impact of bullying can be catastrophic – the wider society are also the losers.”

Overall, the majority of people did not report bullying. University staff were most likely to seek support from family and/or friends. Only a quarter (26%) of UK staff sought support from their university counselling service.

“The issue of bullying has reached unacceptable proportions in higher education,” says Gus John, fellow of the London centre for leadership in learning at the Institute of Education.

“Often the complaints procedures in such institutions are ineffective,” says John, “largely because HR departments see it as their business to defend the indefensible, ie the conduct of managers, rather than demonstrating that the institution has an equal duty of care towards victims of such oppressive conduct.”

Kim Frost, chair of universities HR association, says no-one should suffer in silence and there are many forms of support that universities provide, from employee helplines to clear policies on unacceptable behaviour.

Frost says: “Just about all universities take bullying very seriously and have policies on dignity at work or bullying which they are experienced in using.

“Bullying is a very emotive term, and what one person experiences as bullying will often be simple performance management from their manager’s point of view. Sometimes the person who feels bullied can feel the university isn’t supporting them enough because of that need to be even-handed during any investigation.”

Survey findings suggest that bullying is having a lasting effect on higher education. Overall, as a result of being bullied, 87% of researchers said they lost confidence in their academic work and 20% of researchers left their job. In the UK, 13% left academia.

Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, says these findings are a “shocking reflection on the sector” and reveal not much has changed since 2012, when the UCU ran a survey on stress and bullying.

“Universities need to adopt a zero tolerance approach to bullying and harassment, ensuring that they have appropriate procedures in place to deal with it when it does occur and support those who have been bullied.”
With the UK government distributing £1.6bn of public money in research funding, it’s inevitable that there will be some form of mechanism for assessing the quality of research in UK universities. But since the REF replaced its predecessor, the RAE, in 2008, it has received heavy criticism and been called “not fit for purpose”.

Of those who said recent policy changes had a negative impact on bullying, 81% in Russell Group universities cited the REF.

“Only excellence in research is appreciated and no diminution in output or quality can be tolerated or excused by the increased teaching and pastoral demands on our time,” comments one female academic in the survey who works at a Russell Group university.

Another Russell Group academic aged between 45-54 wrote: “The matching of REF performance with income has completely destroyed the idea that academic research is of intrinsic value. It gives highly successful researchers the licence to behave badly with impunity because no university wants to lose the associated income.”

He added: “Equally, researchers who manage to get some of the reduced grant funds available are treated as untouchable when they misbehave. This failing system is self-propagating and harms large numbers of people.”

Nicola Dandridge, chief executive of Universities UK, said: “Given the REF is a new system and one which has a significant impact on researchers, it is important that it is evaluated and the sector is given an opportunity to feed back on the process as it develops.”

More like this:
• Culture of cruelty: why bullying thrives in higher education
• ‘Professors are supposed to be stressed! That’s the job’
• Bullying in universities: what are your legal rights?

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