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The Importance of the Employee ‘Deal’

  • 18 February 2022
  • By Mark Sterling

This blog was contributed by Professor Mark Sterling, Deputy Pro-Vice Chancellor (Staffing) and Beale Professor of Civil Engineering at the University of Birmingham.

There has been much debate of late over academic careers and even the rewards associated with them. Whichever side of the debate you land on, we can probably all agree that the way in which we work and many aspects of the work we undertake has changed considerably over the last couple of years. It is also likely that this change will continue. Indeed, the concept of a ‘normal’ year is something that is unlikely to ever happen again.

Given the constantly changing demands placed on universities, we asked ourselves how we could best equip new academic staff to thrive in this environment and what would be the associated ‘deal’. Like all important questions, this was not easy to answer. In the end, at Birmingham we developed and launched the Birmingham Academic Career Framework. Like all the best ideas, we borrowed from best practice from across the sector.

The approach we adopted was to focus on the following areas:

Promotion Criteria

Across the sector, many promotion criteria are archaic and, we would argue, do not unpin the implicit values of the sector. Put simply, whilst we value citizenship, occasionally we do not demonstrate this in the promotion decisions we make. This is rather odd since citizenship is fundamental to our individual and collective successesThus, at Birmingham, we have explicitly included citizenship as a separate area in which a positive contribution has to be demonstrated for promotion and the level of contribution in this area increases between Associate Professor (Senior Lecturer) and Professor. To be clear, a research ‘superstar’ may apply for promotion, but if they could not demonstrate the appropriate level of citizenship then they would not be successful. For an institution that values research so highly, this was a challenging area to navigate. 

We have also made our promotions processes fully transparent and agreed to provide detailed and structured feedback which unsuccessful applicants can build upon when moving forward.   

In the past, applying for promotion at Birmingham often took a considerable amount of time and it was not uncommon for applications to exceed 40 pages, in addition to an academic CV. We have now reduced the template to five pages and would not expect the completed application form to exceed 10 pages.

As with all major changes, whilst we have confidence in our new approach, we have also introduced a variety of safety nets during the transition to the new scheme. We are committed to assessing the scheme in three years and, of course, to sharing the results with all our staff.

Flexible career structures

We realised very quickly that our career structures did not reflect the variety of activities in which academics are involved. We therefore introduced an Enterprise, Engagement and Impact pathway. We provided examples of the myriad of activities and levels of performance associated with each of our career pathways. This has not only helped with our annual performance development reviews, but also helps colleagues to plan their future more effectively, particularly in relation to their applications for promotion.

Academic careers can change considerably, and we were therefore keen to provide a mechanism to enable colleagues to switch between the various academic pathways.  The flexibility we have built into the system, the recognition of many tasks academic colleagues perform and in particular the examples, were not only highly debated but also welcomed by many.  

Academic Development Programme

As noted above, we were particularly concerned with those colleagues who were just starting their careers as Assistant Professors. To support those staff, we realised that we needed to develop an enhanced support programme comprised of discipline-specific development time, institutional development time and self-reflection. A fundamental component of the programme will be developing an effective cohort peer support group from the start and ensuring that colleagues receive regular feedback. We do not want anyone to fall behind. We took the opportunity to revamp the University’s mentoring programme and ensure that each support group has both a senior academic and senior non-academic contact who would not only provide guidance when needed but would also help to grow an individual’s external network. We felt particularly strongly about the latter, given the different approaches other institutions are taking to address the challenges facing the sector.

A key part of the Academic Development Programme was the desire to catapult the careers of colleagues and reduce the time taken to be promoted.  Thus, part of the ‘deal’ we have introduced means that those who successfully complete the programme will be promoted to Associate Lecturer (Senior Lecturer). To achieve this, we have built in a number of development points where colleagues are able to obtain formal feedback on their progress.  We also appreciate that there are a variety of factors which may hamper an individual developing at the rate we envisage and as a result we have incorporated numerous safeguards and support along the way. Part of our support strategy is a commitment to helping colleagues develop and having open and honest conversations about their academic progress and career trajectory.  

Equality, Diversity and Inclusion

We debated at length how we could reinforce the importance of, and our commitment to Equality, Diversity and Inclusion. We felt strongly that this should become a golden thread present in everything we do. Hence, we made this a core component of the academic CV, fully embedded it in the promotions criteria and ensured it forms a key component of our development activities. All of this ran alongside and complemented a larger equality change programme which is currently underway.

The Birmingham Academic Career Framework was a far-reaching and complex project. The project team consisted of academics and professional services colleagues and took more than two years to conclude. Key to the success of the project was a significant programme of focus groups with staff, much of which took place remotely due to the pandemic.

However, because of the widespread engagement, what resulted was a much stronger career support framework. 

It is also important to note that throughout the project we consulted with our local UCU branch and worked together to reach agreement on the Framework. This serves as a useful reminder at the current time, that there is always more which binds the community than separates it – something which can be easily forgotten.

On Thursday 10 March 2022 HEPI and Advance HE are jointly hosting a webinar on equality and diversity. To register your place, please click here.

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