Bullying in higher education

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We should be worried about the competence of those running our universities, says Gus John, who identifies three reasons why bullying goes unchecked in academia.

‘Publish or perish’ research culture in universities is damaging staff morale. Photograph: Donna Yates/Donna Yates

‘Publish or perish’ research culture in universities is damaging staff morale. Photograph: Donna Yates/Donna Yates

The results of the Guardian higher education network’s survey on bullying in higher education should give the entire sector cause to worry about the competence and style of leaders and managers in the sector.

As someone who has examined the equality policies and action plans of every institution in the UK in the last 12 years, I identify three key problems:

1) University leaders put money ahead of learning

Vice-chancellors, provosts and principals are running institutions that see themselves more and more as corporations or conglomerates. They are not understanding that financial management and brand leadership should not displace the fact that universities are first and foremost learning communities – and that the principal function of education is to humanise society.

Management competence must be measured as much as anything else by senior managers’ capacity to demonstrate a knowledge of employment law and acceptable practice, and its convergence with equality and human rights legislation. They need to know how they would ensure that it forms the foundation on which they set about building and sustaining a culture of equity.

2) HR protects senior management

Complaint procedures are often far too legalistic and bureaucratic and are not as responsive as they might be to the pain and hurt that staff routinely experience.

Rather than dealing with the offending conduct, institutions indulge in a form of back covering and self justification which blocks their ears to the messages that those suffering bullying wish to convey. Rather than holding managers to account for respecting the rights of employees, HR departments see it as their business to put a ring of steel around offending managers and ignore the duty of care the institution as employer has to those whom they bully.

Like schools and Ofsted, higher education appears to believe that the institution’s place in the REF (research excellence framework) league table is paramount and therefore whatever is done to achieve the highest assessment is justifiable, irrespective of the denial of rights and the damage it causes to individuals as differentiated by ethnicity, gender disability etc.

3) Universities feel they are untouchable

Increasingly, these corporations believe that no one could hold them to account on issues to do with employment law, employee relations and their compliance with equality and human rights legislation. So, they bully staff in respect of other organisational goals and in the process contravene the very laws that are in place to protect people from such abusive conduct. When employees exercise their right to challenge them externally, and the institutions capitulate and go for a compromise agreement, such agreements invariably come with a non-disclosure or gagging clause. Thus, the problem simply becomes embedded.

Too many institutions see it as being in their interest to settle out of court and avoid massive legal fees and the danger of being found guilty by an employment tribunal. But they also do this to silence the victims of such abuse in return for a pay off.

They very rarely go on to scrutinise the management conduct that led the victim to seek redress in the first place. Therefore, business goes on as usual. The institution and the offending manager learn nothing and have no incentive to review and alter their conduct, even though the career of the complainant is pretty much ruined by the time matters get to that stage, however hefty the pay out.

Universities and gagging clauses

AcademicFOI.com report that over the last three years, 366 gagging clauses resulted from employment tribunal claims against universities that were settled prior to hearings. Those settlements involved payments to staff of £4.4m and legal costs of £7.1m. 810 staff submitted claims to employment tribunals for a range of alleged employment breaches, including bullying and harassment. Academic FOI.com says of non-disclosure agreements:

“The exact wordings vary and are kept confidential but typically the member of staff signs their agreement not to discuss their settlement with anyone apart from immediate family or professional advisers. They also agree not to publicly criticise the university or discuss the dispute that led to the agreement being signed.”

In the interviews and focus group discussions I have held with complainants in universities, however, everyone has pointed to the stress, mental distress and disruption they suffered before, during and after their decision to take their complaint to the employment tribunal. The institution insulates itself and moves on. Most complainants find it difficult if not impossible to do so with their health, reputation and careers “intact”.

One would hope that this damning report would make the government review the criteria for granting external validation to the sector and re-examine the conditions upon which they continue to fund institutions to carry on with business as usual, especially having regard to the observations above.

The article above was published by The Guardian newspaper on December 16th

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This is an excellent article. Alas, the situation appears all too similar in the mainstream education sector. Teachers are being bullied into signing compromise agreements with the gagging clause. In fact, local authorities and academies appear to have the cost of potential compromise agreements incorporated into their budgets! The other issue to examine is the role of the unions who supposedly represent the teachers and lecturers. How effective are they, and to what extent do union reps liaise with the employer during a dispute?

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