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This is a fuller version, with links, of the comment piece published in Times Higher Education on 10 April 2008. Download newspaper version here.

If you still have any doubt about the problems of directed research, look at the trenchant editorial in Nature (3 April, 2008. Look also at the editorial in Science by Bruce Alberts. The UK’s establishment is busy pushing an agenda that is already fading in the USA.

Since this went to press, more sense about “Brain Gym” has appeared. First Jeremy Paxman had a good go on Newsnight. Skeptobot has posted links to the videos of the broadcast, which have now appeared on YouTube.

Then, in the Education Guardian, Charlie Brooker started his article about “Brain Gym” thus

“Man the lifeboats. The idiots are winning. Last week I watched, open-mouthed,
a Newsnight piece on the spread of “Brain Gym” in British schools “

Dr Aust’s cogent comments are at “Brain Gym” loses its trousers.

The Times Higher’s subeditor removed my snappy title and substituted this.

So here it is.

“HR is like many parts of modern businesses: a simple expense, and a burden on the backs of the productive workers”, “They don’t sell or produce: they consume. They are the amorphous support services” .

So wrote Luke Johnson recently in the Financial Times. He went on, “Training advisers are employed to distract everyone from doing their job with pointless courses”. Luke Johnson is no woolly-minded professor. He is in the Times’ Power 100 list, he organised the acquisition of PizzaExpress before he turned 30 and he now runs Channel 4 TV.

Why is it that Human Resources (you know, the folks we used to call Personnel) have acquired such a bad public image? It is not only in universities that this has happened. It seems to be universal, and worldwide. Well here are a few reasons.

Like most groups of people, HR is intent on expanding its power and status. That is precisely why they changed their name from Personnel to HR. As Personnel Managers they were seen as a service, and even, heaven forbid, on the side of the employees. As Human Resources they become part of the senior management team, and see themselves not as providing a service, but as managing people. My concern is the effect that change is having on science, but it seems that the effects on pizza sales are not greatly different.

The problem with having HR people (or lawyers, or any other non-scientists) managing science is simple. They have no idea how it works. They seem to think that every activity
can be run as though it was Wal-Mart That idea is old-fashioned even in management circles. Good employers have hit on the bright idea that people work best when they are not constantly harassed and when they feel that they are assessed fairly. If the best people don’t feel that, they just leave at the first opportunity. That is why the culture of managerialism and audit. though rampant, will do harm in the end to any university that embraces it.

As it happens, there was a good example this week of the damage that can be inflicted on intellectual standards by the HR mentality. As a research assistant, I was sent the Human Resources Division Staff Development and Training booklet. Some of the courses they run are quite reasonable. Others amount to little more than the promotion of quackery. Here are three examples. We are offered a courses in “Self-hypnosis”, in “Innovations for Researchers” and in “Communication and Learning: Recent Theories and Methodologies”. What’s wrong with them?

“Self-hypnosis” seems to be nothing more than a pretentious word for relaxation. The person who is teaching researchers to innovate left science straight after his PhD and then did courses in “neurolinguistic programming” and life-coaching (the Carole Caplin of academia perhaps?). How that qualifies him to teach scientists to be innovative in research may not be obvious.

The third course teaches, among other things, the “core principles” of neurolinguistic programming, the Sedona method (“Your key to lasting happiness, success, peace and well-being”), and, wait for it, Brain Gym. This booklet arrived within a day or two of Ben
Goldacre’s spectacular demolition of Brain Gym “Nonsense dressed up as neuroscience”

“Brain Gym is a set of perfectly good fun exercise break ideas for kids, which costs a packet and comes attached to a bizarre and entirely bogus pseudoscientific explanatory framework”

“This ridiculousness comes at very great cost, paid for by you, the taxpayer, in thousands of state schools. It is peddled directly to your children by their credulous and apparently moronic teachers”

And now, it seems, peddled to your researchers by your credulous and
moronic HR department.

Neurolinguistic programming is an equally discredited form of psycho-babble, the dubious status of which was highlighted in a Beyerstein’s 1995 review, from Simon Fraser University.

“ Pop-psychology. The human potential movement and the fringe areas of psychotherapy also harbor a number of other scientifically questionable panaceas. Among these are Scientology, Neurolinguistic Programming, Re-birthing and Primal Scream Therapy which have never provided a scientifically acceptable rationale or evidence to support their therapeutic claims.”

The intellectual standards for many of the training courses that are inflicted on young researchers seem to be roughly on a par with the self-help pages of a downmarket women’s magazine. It is the Norman Vincent Peale approach to education. Uhuh, sorry, not education, but training. Michael O’Donnell defined Education as “Elitist activity. Cost ineffective. Unpopular with Grey Suits . Now largely replaced by Training .”

In the UK most good universities have stayed fairly free of quackery (the exceptions being the sixteen post-1992 universities that give BSc degrees in things like homeopathy). But now it is creeping in though the back door of credulous HR departments. Admittedly UCL Hospitals Trust recently advertised for spiritual healers, but that is the NHS not a university. The job specification form for spiritual healers was, it’s true, a pretty good example of the HR box-ticking mentality. You are in as long as you could tick the box to say that you have a “Full National Federation of Spiritual Healer certificate. or a full Reiki Master qualification, and two years post certificate experience”. To the HR mentality, it doesn’t matter a damn if you have a certificate in balderdash, as long as you have the piece of paper. How would they know the difference?

A lot of the pressure for this sort of nonsense comes, sadly, from a government that is obsessed with measuring the unmeasurable. Again, real management people have already worked this out. The management editor of the Guardian, said

“What happens when bad measures drive out good is strikingly described in an article in the current Economic Journal. Investigating the effects of competition in the NHS, Carol Propper and her colleagues made an extraordinary discovery. Under competition, hospitals improved their patient waiting times. At the same time, the death-rate e emergency heart-attack admissions substantially increased.”

Two new government initiatives provide beautiful examples of the HR mentality in action, They are Skills for Health, and the recently-created Complementary and Natural Healthcare Council.(already dubbed OfQuack).

The purpose of the Natural Healthcare Council .seems to be to implement a box-ticking exercise that will have the effect of giving a government stamp of approval to treatments that don’t work. Polly Toynbee summed it up when she wrote about “ Quackery
and superstition – available soon on the NHS
“ . The advertisement for its CEO has already appeared, It says that main function of the new body will be to enhance public protection and confidence in the use of complementary therapists. Shouldn’t it be decreasing confidence in quacks, not increasing it? But, disgracefully, they will pay no attention at all to whether the treatments work. And the advertisement refers you to
the Prince of Wales’ Foundation for Integrated Health for more information (hang on, aren’t we supposed to have a constitutional monarchy?).

Skills for Health, or rather that unofficial branch of government, the Prince of Wales’ Foundation, had been busy making ‘competences’ for distant healing, with a helpful bulletted list.

“This workforce competence is applicable to:

  • healing in the presence of the client
  • distant healing in contact with the client
  • distant healing not in contact with the client”

And they have done the same for homeopathy and its kindred delusions. The one thing they never consider is whether they are writing ‘competences’ in talking gobbledygook. When I phoned them to try to find out who was writing this stuff (they wouldn’t say), I made a passing joke about writing competences in talking to trees. The answer came back, in all seriousness,

“You’d have to talk to LANTRA, the land-based organisation for that”,
“LANTRA which is the sector council for the land-based industries uh, sector, not with us sorry . . . areas such as horticulture etc.”.

Anyone for competences in sense of humour studies?

The “unrepentant capitalist” Luke Johnson, in the FT, said

“I have radically downsized HR in several companies I have run, and business has gone all the better for it.”

Now there’s a thought.

The follow-up

The provost’s newletter for 24th June 2008 could just be a delayed reaction to this piece? For no obvious reason, it starts thus.

“(1) what’s management about?
Human resources often gets a bad name in universities, because as academics we seem to sense instinctively that management isn’t for us. We are autonomous lone scholars who work hours well beyond those expected, inspired more by intellectual curiosity than by objectives and targets. Yet a world-class institution like UCL obviously requires high quality management, a theme that I reflect on whenever I chair the Human Resources Policy Committee, or speak at one of the regular meetings to welcome new staff to UCL. The competition is tough, and resources are scarce, so they need to be efficiently used. The drive for better management isn’t simply a preoccupation of some distant UCL bureaucracy, but an important responsibility for all of us. UCL is a single institution, not a series of fiefdoms; each of us contributes to the academic mission and good management permeates everything we do. I despair at times when quite unnecessary functional breakdowns are brought to my attention, sometimes even leading to proceedings in the Employment Tribunal, when it is clear that early and professional management could have stopped the rot from setting in years before. UCL has long been a leader in providing all newly appointed heads of department with special training in management, and the results have been impressive. There is, to say the least, a close correlation between high performing departments and the quality of their academic leadership. At its best, the ethos of UCL lies in working hard but also in working smart; in understanding that UCL is a world-class institution and not the place for a comfortable existence free from stretch and challenge; yet also a good place for highly-motivated people who are also smart about getting the work-life balance right.”

I don’t know quite what to make of this. Is it really a defence of the Brain Gym mentality?

Of course everyone wants good management. That’s obvious, and we really don’t need a condescending lecture about it. The interesting question is whether we are getting it.

There is nothing one can really object to in this lecture, apart from the stunning post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy implicit in “UCL has long been a leader in providing all newly appointed heads of department with special training in management, and the results have been impressive.”. That’s worthy of a nutritional therapist.

Before I started writing this response at 08.25 I had already got an email from a talented and hard-working senior postdoc. “Let’s start our beautiful working day with this charging thought of the week:”.

He was obviously rather insulted at the suggestion that it was necessary to lecture academics with words like ” not the place for a comfortable existence free from stretch and challenge; yet also a good place for highly-motivated people who are also smart about getting the work-life balance right.”. I suppose nobody had thought of that until HR wrote it down in a “competence”?

To provoke this sort of reaction in our most talented young scientists could, arguably, be regarded as unfortunate.

I don’t blame the postdoc for feeling a bit insulted by this little homily.

So do I.

Now back to science.

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65 Responses to In-human resources, science and pizza

  • I am always struck by how many people giving these courses on career development in science, or innovation, or whatever, actually have very little, if any, experience of whatever it is they’re supposed to be teaching you.

    Most of them only seem qualified to talk about working in the ‘training’ and HR sector.

    In my experience it isn’t just HR pushing this nonsense in universities, often they filter down by first disseminating at the upper echelons of management (where everyone regards themselves as pseudo-business people) where it is, naturally, enthusiasticaly embraced, and then inflicted on those lower down the food chain. Partly because they provide a nice and easy way to instill those oh so vauable ‘soft skills’ we’re all supposed to have.

    You would think departments of psychology or medicine would be immune to this nonsense, but sadly you’d be wrong. Still, it is funny watching your MBTI certified practitioners arguing with clinical psychologists.

  • The organisation I work for does not even have a “human Resources” department. They are just “Resources”.

    Motivational? I think not.

  • Thanks for that – I LOVED IT. It’s fantastic that the truth of HR (I truly hate that phrase) has been so ruthlessly exposed. Should be part of the School Handbook. Any VC who stripped out all the BS would immediately retain and attract good people and see their productivity soar.

  • I agree that the kind of course you highlight is a waste of time. But, don’t go too far the other way. There is a lot of good stuff being done by HR people all round the world. The reason the HR director is on the board is the same reason as the IT director is now often on the board. Both roles have become increasingly important and actually both areas have made huge strides. I think of the bullshit as a sort of inevitable waste product of high profile and fast change.

    I don’t know the academic world but I am pretty sure universities can benefit from this experience and skill. For example, my own experience as an undergraduate (35 years ago) and my son’s current experience is that universities are inconsistent, inefficient and sometimes poor at their second major task (other than research) which is providing education. It seems that they are still hugely dependent on lectures from academics who have subject matter skills but no training (except perhaps a 2 day session on giving presentations) and sometimes little interest in being an educator. The whole edifice is highly dependent on the charisma and enthusiam on specific individuals who are often hugely resistant to any suggestions for improvement.

    This is just the type of mess that a good HR person can help sort out. It needs culture change, measurement(!), development of skills, a reward structure etc.

    The best alternative to bad HR and bad management is good HR and good management – not to abandon management and HR altogether.

  • The placebo effect has always been impenetrable to semi-numerate romantics. If only the gullible could be persuaded to understand why random double-blinding is necessary, & why that particular hurdle has to be jumped.
    It is sad that our probable next monarch appears to be almost totally innumerate for anything more complicated than playground arithmetic.

  • Re. Mark’s comment above:

    I lecture in physics at the University of Nottingham . As a (relatively) fresh-faced new lecturer some eleven years ago I was obliged to attend a series of sessions led by the Staff Development unit which were ostensibly designed to develop my teaching skills.

    In common with my colleagues in Physics & Astronomy at Nottingham, I am very enthusiastic about teaching and spend a considerable amount of time developing and fine-tuning modules and courses to ensure that I am teaching – note, not “delivering” – the material to the best of my ability (As would be expected of any professional educator). Each and every training session I attended as a new lecturer impeded rather than helped my teaching. I got precisely zero insight from those sessions. Importantly, it was not, as you suggest, a matter of being “hugely resistant to any suggestions for improvement” . We have a peer review system operating within the School of Physics and Astronomy whereby senior (and not so senior) colleagues attended my lectures and gave me feedback on the structure, style, presentation, and content. This was immensely valuable.

    In contrast, shortly after I was appointed as a lecturer I wasted three hours of my life in a training session led by Staff Development entitled “The Reflective Practitioner”. We spent the first twenty minutes, flip-chart and marker pen-enabled, defining just what is meant by “reflective practitioner”. Our definition? “Someone who practices, yet reflects on what they do”. Need I say more?

    Promoting more effective teaching is most definitely not “the type of mess that a good HR person can help sort out” . There are many exceptionally capable lecturers in departments across the UK who are being demotivated, not enthused, by HR and staff development diktats. We are professional scientists and teachers. We naturally reflect on and aim to improve what we do – it’s built into our psyche!

    I disagree with you at the most fundamental level: the best alternative to (bad) HR is indeed no HR at all.

  • Perhaos I should clarify a bit. Of course we need efficient and helpful people to manage personnel matters and to ensure that we stay within the law. All I’m saying is that the cobbler should stick to his last. That means that HR should have nothing to do with “training courses” or assessment of performance. It is simply outside their range of expertise. They are there to help those who do the business of the university (research and teaching, as I understand it), not to manage them. I found it fascinating that I found myself in such total agreement with the “unrepentant capitalist”.

  • As a Director of Finance within a University, I would just like to pass on my huge thanks, not only because I appear at last to have found someone who shares my own views on the culture of managerialism and audit, but also because it would appear that there is at least one other department in a University who are lower in the pecking order than us boneheaded bean counters (as I once noted we were described as in THE).
    Perhaps I should be careful though, as your next article may be about the boneheaded bean counters.
    Oh yes, almost forgot, the article made me laugh too, and thats always to be welcomed after a day spent pouring over a University’s finances.

  • How very nice to get support from a Director of Finance, though I shouldn’t be surprised, given the quotations from Luke Johnson. And rest assured that my earlier comments about bone-headed bean counters were not aimed at finance people.

    I also had a rather less sympathetic letter from a very senior university administrator, It turned out, though, that our disagreements were more about style than content. In fact he became quite sympathetic when he saw how our admin people are being treated,

    One matter that he mentioned was stress reduction. Thw Health and Safety people are worried about that. So am I, having often suffered the stress of trying to find someone in HR at 4.50 pm on Friday. As so often, the great Laurie Taylor says it all, in Times Higher Education..

    Louise Bimpson, the relatively popular head of our ever-expanding Human Resources Department, asks us to remind all academics that tomorrow (Friday) is the absolute final closing date for the completion and submission of the forty-two page Stress Questionnaire that was mailed to all members of staff yesterday morning. Those members of staff who fail to submit their fully completed questionnaire on time will not be eligible for next term’s Reducing Stress seminars and may be subject to internal disciplinary action.
  • I am Russian and know a couple of dozen of (former) Soviet academics now working in British universities. Remarkable how united we are in our description of staff development activities: politucheba, political training. It is more than obvious for us that HR are attempting to fill in a niche in the society similar to one that, back in the Soviet Union, was occupied by the enterprise/university level tier of Communist Party organisations.

    I understand that this sounds bizarre and incredible, and at least one clarifying remark is necessary: do not think that politucheba was aimed at brainwashing — no-one cared about its efficiency. Also, authorities did not care about learning outcomes, etc. All that was required on part of participants was compliance with the procedure as an expression of loyalty to the system.

    Unfortunately, I see the same ritualistic approach in staff development activities in British universities.

  • Interesting, Borovik.

    I attended a compulsory “Equal Opportunities Awareness Course” along with an (ex-Soviet) departmental collegue a few years back. I wondered why he kept smirking knowingly as a dozen of us sat there being lectured by the rather smug “training consultant”.

    Now I understand…

  • Back in ’98 when I first joined my last university employer I attended the seminar(s) designed to introduce the new employee. I lasted one morning then went back to the lab and got back to writing that grant proposal. Bizarrely for a research university the course contained nothing relevant to the work of researchers. It was relevant yes, to secretaries and administrators. They were still Personnel back then but obviously their competences did not extend to understanding research back then.

    I had a number of contracts in that institution and resolutely failed to waste my time in repeating the exercise, despite being invited to do so on several occasions.

    At the start of my last contract I was required to attend HR in person with photo ID, like a passport, yet the ID/pass card I was issued with still used the 8year old photo taken back in ’98 that they must have pulled off a file somewhere… They had to tick the box you see, but it sure didn’t make me feel like a valued employee working for an employer who cared about me.

  • Wow, we don’t have anything like that in France yet. On the other hand, we do have colleagues who put about zero effort* into their teaching, and nothing can be done to protect the students from them. Since the same people set and mark exams on their own courses, there is no way to actually tell whether the students have learnt anything or not. Professors can pretend to teach, students can pretend to study, then at the end the requisite proportion of students pass the course, and everyone comes out looking good. Box ticking par excellence, I’m afraid.
    I’m not sure ineffective teachers would become any better by going on a totally bogus course – although it might conceivably have some deterrent value. (Shape up, or you have to endure two days of “training”). The peer review described by Philip Moriarty sounds like a good idea, but how do you get it started? I expect most people (myself included) would get rather touchy if they got too many negative comments.

    * Is it possible to have negative effort? Presumably that would mean actively trying to make something work badly – but even then you would probably have to work at it a bit, which invalidates the concept.

  • Thanks DMcILROY. The peer review system is pretty standard now here. It can certainly be useful insofar as it is done by someone who knows about the subject. It is undoubtedly a lot better than any sort of box ticking. Like any other system, it can be abused of course, but it’s the best system that I know about. Assessing teaching is desperately difficult of course. It is pretty general experience that student ratings are inversely proportional to the number of equations in the lecture so the pressure to dumb down is enormous. I have had ovations at the end of lectures that I gave to medical students on alcohol and general anaesthetics, but medical students think that anything to do with getting drunk is inherently hilarious. At the other extreme, after being asked to give two lectures on diffusion, and going through the very simplest case of a solution to the diffusion equation in the second one, an anonymous student commented that my time would be spent better teaching Welsh in a Japanese university. It hurts to this day, because I’d put a lot of effort into that lecture. This refers to biological sciences only. I presume students in physical sciences are not quite so antipathetic to even the most elementary maths.

    These are serious academic questions but they are nothing that HR can contribute to solving.

  • On DMcIlroy’s comment: Perhaps surprisingly, the peer review process for lecturing works very well and is not so difficult to set up (nor to run). I very much take your point about how negative comments might be perceived by a given lecturer but the reviewers are chosen for both their lecturing and, let’s say, “interpersonal” skills.

    We also have a Student Evaluation of Teaching scheme and a module questionnaire for each course we teach. So, in principle, it’s possible to be reviewed three times for a given module: peer review, student review of teaching, and student review of the module! I must admit that, with only the very rare exception, I find student evaluation of lectures very useful. Even 1st year students generally give mature and helpful feedback.

    On the slightly different topic of peer review of grant proposals, rather than of lectures, I’ve just posted this over at Andrew Chitty’s The storm breaking upon the university blog.

    Time to stop blogging and do some work…


  • DMcIlroy I know of what you speak. Back in my student days in New Zealand the Anatomy dept had a problem. It had 7 associate profs, many medically qualified so with enhanced salaries. Yet, only two actually taught students. It went like this: first the Medical students complained, then the Dentists, then the Pharmacists and finally even us lowly, tolerant Science students had had enough.

    They all had old fashioned tenure too and did no research, ironically they were put to work creating teaching aids for those lecturers still teaching to use.

    I think they were eventually ‘helped’ into early retirement. But they weren’t replaced with lecturers. The world had moved on, they were replaced with teaching fellows on 9month contracts.

    Be careful what you wish for.

  • Re Philip above. It sounds like you have a good system going and some poor HR support. Is your department typical of your university and of universities in general? It certainly sounds an awful lot better than the education I got in the late 60s early 70s where no one evaluated anything. It is exactly the type of thing that I would hope a good HR department (or general management) would help set up.

    The kind of useless induction and self-development courses that you describe are a symptom of a learning and development HR department that has been sidelined and is desperately trying to find something/anything to do which will make an impact. One answer is to remove L&D from HR (Luke Johnson’s approach) and essentially give line management responsibility for learning and development. The other answer is to give HR *more* power and more accountability, make them work closely with line management and measure their success. Many organisations take the second approach very successfully (most large IT companies for example).

    Whether this applies to universities I don’t know. Maybe I just want to defend what I have been doing for the last 30 years.

  • I’m really glad to hear from people who are in various sorts of administration, and I certainly value good and helpful administrators. Nevertheless. I can’t agree with Mark Frank.

    It seems to me that learning and development are academic matters, and have nothing whatsoever to do with HR. The examples I have given show the disastrous consequences of handing over academic decisions to people whose expertise is not in academic matters but in personnel matters.

    The latter is an important and worthy job, but they should stick to doing it well. They should not be involved in things that are not their job, and which they don’t understand, and that includes any decisions about teaching, learning or science, or the assessment of academic activities.

    Actually I have to say that I’m pretty dubious about their competence to assess the performance of anybody at all, having seen great injustice done to some of our administrative people by HR’s box ticking approach which seems to me to reward inefficiency by judging people by the number of people who are below them.

  • Question back to Philip Moriarty – who goes through all the different assessments/feedback to decide what needs to be changed? If it’s just passed back to the lecturers for information, then conscientious colleagues may take it on board, but the type of people who are problems in the first place probably won’t bother to read any suggestions for improvement that come their way. Either a group of senior colleagues, generally reckoned to be good at teaching, need to be convinced that it is worth the bother to try and assess everybdy else, or (arrgh, I hate to say it) we need some HR management person to do the dirty work.

  • David

    I think there is a confusion here. I am talking about the learning and development of staff i.e. enabling staff to develop their skills and knowledge. The fact that one of the tasks of those staff is to help students learn is essentially a coincidence. Few people would dispute the need for a learning and development strategy for IT experts in an IT company or even cashiers in a bank. But the people implementing that strategy need not themselves be IT experts or cashiers. They need to be experts on how people learn and develop their skills. (This incidentally is very little to do with running courses). They should however take a lot of time and trouble to understand the environment and the needs of the population they are helping. And they are not telling people how to do their jobs.

    What is the value of having an external group such as HR play this role? Philip’s group seems to have done it very nicely without help. Several things. There is such a thing as specialist knowledge and experience in this area (although it is massively prone to bullshit). People in line jobs rarely have the time or interest to step back from their current situation and take a strategic look at their own development. An external group can pick up on what is working and implement it consistently and more quickly throughout the organisation. An external group should anticipate external change and how staff will need to respond to that change – what is working now may not work tomorrow.

    Luke Johnson may not like to have an HR department do this. But I bet he had a strategy for mantaining the skills of his Pizza Express staff and how they would adapt to a changing market. He just found it more effective to do this through line management. I don’t suppose he left it to the staff to develop their own skills because they understood making pizzas.

    Why is this different for academics? Is it just poor HR or is there is something essentially different about academia? I don’t know because I don’t know academia but it is a question that needs answering.

  • DC says “I presume students in physical sciences are not quite so antipathetic to even the most elementary maths.”

    I don’t know about that – you’ll find plenty of chemistry undergrads without an A level in maths who can’t cope with the (trivial) calculus required to understand kinetics.

    Let alone that slightly trickier calculus required to think about quantum mechanics or the group theory required to think about spectroscopy.

  • Mark Frank is right. It is a question that needs to be answered, so I’ll have a go.

    I’ll take as a starting point that the job of academics is to do research and teaching. Both of these activities involve specialised knowledge which is entirely lacking in HR departments, Not only do they lack knowledge of the science, literature, the topic being taught, but they also lack any expertise in teaching methods. In extreme cases, like the ones that I described, the training courses are profoundly anti-educational, and contrary to the aims of a university. I dare say they also lack skills in making pizzas, and are equally unqualified to assess or advise on that too.

    Mark Frank says

    “But the people implementing that strategy need not themselves be IT experts or cashiers. They need to be experts on how people learn and develop their skills”

    This sounds to me like second rate educational psychobabble It leads to people who have done lifestyle courses, Carol Caplin style, lecturing people on being a “reflective practitioner”, as suffered by Philip Moriarty, or on how to be a scientific innovator. Reflective practice is, incidentally, a favourite topic for homeopaths, Enough said.

    The idea that Mark Frank seems to be advocating, that people should be lectured on how to do their jobs by people who know nothing about the job seems to me to be simply arrogant, and the root of many of their problems.

    In fact I’d go a bit further. I would have supposed that one of the things you needed to be a good manager was to keep people on your side. Regardless of whether it is just or unjust, HR certainly have not done that. Every day at home, and everywhere I go in the world, the one topic that unites academics seems to be a detestation of the interfering arrogance of their HR departments, and of the anti-intellectual content of many of their “training courses”. There is a near-universal feeling that they are simply exceeding their remit, and that they have become a major source of stress at work. On the other hand, helpful and efficient support services are essential for the smooth function of the place.

    It could all be solved by Luke Johnson’s method. Downsize HR and restrict their duties to things they know about and are good at. Then everybody would love them.

  • Picking up on two of the comments above:

    First, in response to DMcIlroy, each review process has its own analysis mechanism. First, the in-house (“in-School”) peer review mechanism is rather informal in that it involves each “reviewee” meeting with one of the reviewers following the lecture in question and discussing the content and presentation with him/her. Although there is no formal feedback mechanism, this is still an extremely useful process (as described in a previous post above). Moreover, best practice is fed back to all members of staff via reports circulated at staff meetings.

    The Student Evaluation of Teachers (SET) scheme is coordinated by the Staff & Educational Development Unit (SEDU) in Nottingham. The results are collated/analysed and the scores fed back to the lecturer and, importantly, to the Head of School. Lecturers are expected to include their SET scores in an application for promotion so in principle there is a direct link between teaching and career progression. While one could argue about whether a set of student questionnaire-derived numerical scores is the best measure of teaching quality, it’s been my experience (and that of other colleagues) that the majority of undergraduate students – at least in Physics & Astronomy at Nottingham! – treat the SET process with a great deal of care and think carefully about their responses. Lecturers are “SET-ed” every two years except when they’re in the first three years of their appointment when SET reviews happen annually.

    In addition, a module questionnaire is handed out for every module every year. This is distinct from the SET questionnaire. Individual lecturers or secretaries within the School of Physics & Astronomy collate the module questionnaire data and the results are fed back to the Year Organiser(s) who in turn write a report and present the data to the student body via the Staff Student Consultative Committee. In addition, many lecturers post a collation of the questionnaire responses (and the overall feedback) on the module website.

    Mark asks:

    “Is it just poor HR or is there is something essentially different about academia? “

    The answer is, yes, there is something essentially different about academia. The key difficulty is exactly as David outlines above: as an academic, I respect the opinions and advice of a colleague who has experience of describing complex scientific concepts to an audience of undergraduates in a clear and enthusiastic manner. I have no respect at all for an instructor/training “guru” with no knowledge of my subject area, little idea of how to interact with and enthuse an audience, and overall poor presentational skills attempting to “train” me in lecture “delivery”. During my new lecturer training course I lost count of the number of presentations by staff development which were boring, poorly contructed, and with an information content of close to zero. In our undergraduate degree courses the students give a number of presentations to their peers and one or more members of staff. On one occasion, I brought a mark sheet that we use for student presentations with me into one of the staff development sessions and marked it as I would an undergraduate presentation. The result? Content:E, Presentation:D-, Rapport with audience:E.


  • A slightly different aspect of the problem of management in general, including, but not restricted to, HR concerns evidence. Ben Goldacre wrote a while ago an excellent piece with the title “Testing Social Policy”. One of the things that many scientists find so objectionable about much management-speak (apart from the mangling of the English language) is that it mostly consists of untested assertions that often seem to be based on nothing much beyond whim and, above all, fashion. It doesn’t have to be this way.

  • Some years ago my overworked boss asked me to draft a job specification for a replacement temporary lecturer on the vast form devised by Personnel. There were many sections to fill in but the first seemed easy enough: ‘Main Role`; so I wrote ‘to teach philosophy of science’…the HOD got a call from Personnel saying that this sounded sarcastic and that more content was needed. So he changed it to ‘to contribute to the delivery of our programmes in philosophy of science’ and Personnel were immediately satisfied.

    The rest of the University is often no better at distinguishing genuine content from empty words. Strategy documents, statements of good practice, assessment criteria and so on proliferate, and they are almost all devoid of any real content other than stating the blindingly obvious. I was delighted to see the VC of Reading in the THES declare that he wanted his University to be known as the no-bullshit University. It is high time we had a national campaign to cut the crap in academia and insist on clarity of thought and expression in all aspects of what we do…but then that might threaten whole areas of research…

  • Tnanks James. This is what the Times Higher said about Reading’s VC, Gordon Marshall’

    “He berates other institutions for their use of hyperbole: “Everyone is world class at everything. We’ll be talking inter-planetary superiority next.” He wants Reading to be known as the “no-bullshit university”, and he is proud that its mission statement, strategy and targets all fit on one side of an A4 sheet of paper.”

    Thus far, UCL is merely “global”. Sounds good uh?

  • As Peter Smith puts it, comments upon comments are subject to the law of diminishing fleas. However, I will risk another round as this debate is rather educational.

    There seems to be a lot of disagreement at cross purposes. Most of the comments are criticisms of the kind of “training” academics currently get from the learning and development function of HR (I am going to abbreviate that to L&D). I will take your collective words that this is a fair account and, if so, you are being short-changed. My point is that it doesn’t have to be like that (so further accounts of how bad it is don’t address the point).

    Presumably we all accept that however expert someone might be in their field there are always things you can learn from other areas. Philip’s practices in physics teaching could be useful to a corporate internal training group. Ben Goldacre has no problem pointing out how the methods of science can help social policy. As I wrote before, this doesn’t mean telling people how to do their jobs and not much of it is to do with running courses – certainly not instructor centred lectures. In the world of pizza-making it might be fairly prescriptive (“this is how you deal with a customer complaint”) but if you are dealing with senior professionals it means offering lessons and ideas from elsewhere and helping to apply them in the new environment if appropriate. As David puts it – you need to bring them with you. (“Did you know that corporation X maintains its technical skills by ….. (fill in the blank) with results …… How could you use that in your faculty/department/role?”). That is the kind of support I would expect from a specialist L&D group.

    This is happening all the time in various industries. I asked why academia should be an exception. Philip has responded by reiterating his poor experience with L&D. What I meant was – is there anything about academia that means it *cannot* benefit from *good* L&D practice elsewhere? If the answer is “no reason why not” then the next step is to ask why doesn’t academia get better L&D support?

    What kind of things might good L&D offer academia? My background is in L&D but I don’t know the answer because the first step for a competent L&D person is to understand the environment. But there is real expertise out there. Like any soft subject there is plenty of bullshit but also good stuff. Look at Donald Clark’s blog (http://donaldclarkplanb.blogspot.com/) for an example (Don’t just look at how he attacks bad ideas. Look at the positive ones he puts forward). I am sure most of you will agree with much of it. But he is a leading figure in the L&D industry – not an academic. Would you say he had nothing to offer? I don’t agree with either Donald on many things – but there is clearly no bullshit.

    (I also have strong feelings about evidence – but this already far too long – so I will do it separately or not at all.)

  • Thanks to Philip Moriarty for the details.
    If I ever find the energy, I may even embark on the herculean task of getting people in my department to realise that there might be a need for some kind of evaluation of teaching performance.
    Thinking ahead to the politics of getting things implemented, it might help if our student body could push for this sort of practical effort to improve the teaching they’re getting, rather than shut down the university for weeks at a time in an attempt to emulate grandad when he was in May ’68. But I seem to be wandering off the point……

  • Mark,

    I asked why academia should be an exception. Philip has responded by reiterating his poor experience with L&D.

    Apologies, I clearly didn’t get my point across. I’ll be as succinct as I can (not easy for me!) this time. In a nutshell, the “good L&D” practice you propose is a misnomer/oxymoron. L&D are simply not qualified to give any professional physicist (or, more generally, scientist) advice on how to teach undergraduates or postgraduates.

    Let me choose a specific example. I teach a 1st year course in introductory thermodynamics. As part of this course, I need to explain the second law of thermodynamics – a challenging concept – in as clear and as entertaining a fashion as possible. How, precisely, can L&D help me to do this?

    The fallacy at the core of the L&D ethos is that there are “generic skills” that can be taught in three hour sessions so as to improve lecturers’ “delivery” of material. In fact, teaching undergraduates necessitates: (i) a good understanding of one’s subject; (ii) an enthusiasm for the subject and for teaching; and, importantly, (iii) significant experience of lecturing and a willingness to revise content/presentation in light of student feedback (formal or informal).


  • …one more point re. Mark’s post above. Mark states:“…the first step for a competent L&D person is to understand the environment. But there is real expertise out there.”

    An L&D person who isn’t a physicist (sorry to be so parochial) can’t understand the environment. Mark, can you explain to me what “real expertise” in teaching physics does an L&D person have over and above that of a qualified physics lecturer?

    Best wishes,


  • Philip

    The level of misunderstanding between us is still very high. Because of the nature of your profession there are two different ways that an L&D professional might help. One is to help you find ways to learn. The other is to help you assist your students to learn. I could only guess at what might be relevant to you without talking to you and observing what happens in your workplace but here are a few questions I might ask (if I had not retired).

    Wrt to your own learning.

    You have a system for exchanging teaching experiences among your own department. That’s great. Do you have a way of capturing that experience and extending the lessons learned to newcomers and other faculties? It is really interesting to see how DcMilroy learned about your best practice through this discussion. But there are ways to make that kind of learning more common and organised.

    Looking more specifically at how you can help your students to learn.

    You place a lot of emphasis on lectures. Most of what is learned in a lecture is forgotten with 48 hours unless the student takes action to recapitulate. What do you have in place to ensure that this recapitulation takes place? Do you have a system for confirming it has happened?

    No one can hold more than about 5-7 things in short term memory. This often means that lessons can be improved by structuring them so that the student is told no more than about 5 things before they have an opportunity to use that information and this transfer it to long term memory (we could talk about what a “thing” is). Do you take this into account in designing your lessons?

    You seem to have an excellent system for evaluating your own performance in lectures but of course what really matters is the student’s performance. Do you have a system for assessing the contribution of the lecture to the student’s learning? (especially as in many environments most learning takes place outside of the formal sessions).

    Do you regularly record your classes and make them available via Moodle or similar so that students who have missed them can catch up or students who got lost can recap? I am sure you know that this is common practice in many areas including teaching physics. But there is more to it than just putting a video camera at the back of the room.

    Are you sure lectures are the best way for your students to learn your material?

    I could go on for ever …..

    No doubt you will react to some of these and say “we do that already” or “not relevant to me”. But hopefully it gives you an idea.

  • While I am at it I will pick up on David’s comment about evidence and management. I am surprised he referred to the Ben Goldacre piece. First, it is about social policy, not management. Second, if you look at the ensuing comments, you will see Ben (whom I greatly admire) was by and large wrong in this case. Randomised trials are done for social policy and there are good reasons why they are far less common than, for example, in drug testing.

    To come back to management. There is no question that management is full of bullshit, jargon and fashion. But there is such a thing as good management and it is unreasonable to ask managers to adopt the same level of evidence as a scientist. A manager does not have the luxury of saying “I don’t know” or “I need more evidence”. They have to decide on limited information which may or may not be true, in a changing environment with vast numbers of confounding variables. If they wait until more rigorous evidence is available it will be too late. In some areas scientists are coming up against these same problems (e.g. climate change). As someone explained to me early in my career – it is not such a matter of making the right decision as making the decision right.

    Efforts to gather rigorous evidence in management are often useless. An example from my own field is the numerous studies to compare the effectiveness of e-learning against instructor led training. Most of them are on the lines of dividing students into two groups (possibly randomised) and asking half of them to study some material via e-learning and half via instructor led and testing them before and after. The answer is almost always that the e-learning was at least as effective. But actually the studies are only useful for selling e-learning. Besides the obvious issues with validity of the trial (Hawthorne effect, no possibility of double blind, does it apply to different content, how good was the instructor) the result is inapplicable to the real world. E-learning technology and methods change every year. Real training programmes are a mixture of e-learning and various types of human support and informal learning. The main reasons for adopting e-learning are more mundane concerns with cost and availability.

    This is not to say that management is pure guess work. But what is far more useful to a manager is a case study or an example where e-learning has been implemented. “Up the Organisation” is all anecdote and common sense – anathema to scientists. In fact it is frequently the attempt to be scientific – a sort of physics envy I guess – that leads to the bullshit and fads – which of course gets the real scientists tied up in knots.

  • Mark, I find your contribution really interesting. As a relatively new postdoc with reasonably fresh memories of being lectured, but also experience of Academic seminars and ‘L&D’ sessions it is interesting to see this discussion.
    I agree with you in principle, but I think that your ideas are more appropriate to secondary school than University.
    University Lectures are partway between academic seminars – presentation of experiments and secondary school.
    You talk about only holding 7 things in short term memory, and planning a lecture around this to incorporate an activity to transfer this to long term – a school type activity. Lectures of this type are absolutely the worst most cringe worthy experiences. I (and my colleagues) learnt less from these and hated them more than the lectures delivered by a quiet Japanese woman who could barely speak English. Worse still we felt thorougly partonised by them. The lecturers who had been on the L&D courses and benefited from ‘knowledge from other areas’ were without exception the worst.
    The environment Lecturers work in is not like any other, they are teaching highly specialised knowledge, hopefully to people who want to learn. There is also a lot of material to get in, I believe it is intentionally very intense and requires the student to take extensive notes (precisely because they cannot hold it all in their heads), the most satisfying lectures I attended are like the most satisfying seminars I attend now, they present a series of logical arguments which result in an elegant conclusion where at the end you get that warm fealing as you see the sense in what is being argued.

    No amount of training can teach someone how to deliver this sort of lecture, I believe it is a skill that is learnt with experience

  • On the general topic of (mal) administration . . . . HR or otherwise . . how many reorganisations have any of you bene through in the last (say) 5 years?

    None . . gosh you are lucky . .
    only one . . unusual . .
    multiple! . . ahhh . . probably the norm.

    And who has benefited? The cadres of HR and other ‘services’ who have taken a larger and larger share of resources and rarely it seems (well as far as they say anyway) . . make any mistakes!

    As a Medical Academic who works for both the NHS and a University . . I seem to have been through inumerable movements of the deck chairs around ever sinking ships . . . .

    If only they would leave us to get on and work!

  • Mark,

    I could address your points in great detail but I’ll try to be as brief as possible. The key rebuttals are the following (and they echo DrJ’s comments in the preceding post):

    1. I am well aware of just how ineffective the lecture format can be. However, I know this not through any type of L & D-led training but simply by being attuned to the students’ attention span during each lecture. I use a technology called “KEEPad” which involves handing out electronic keypads to students so they can answer multiple choice questions during each lecture. The system integrates very easily with PowerPoint and provides immediate feedback to students (and me) during the lecture via bar charts of responses.

    2. I have in the past made MP3s of lectures available via the web. The feedback from questionnaires is that students are rather equivocal about the usefulness of this approach. This is hardly surprising – the interactivity that is built into the lectures (through, for example, the system described in point 1 above) is not captured via MP3 or video. In any case, I put all the lecture slides on the module website.

    3. Are you sure lectures are the best way for your students to learn your material? Mark, this statement – along with many of your comments above – comes across, I’m afraid, as remarkably patronising. This particular comment in fact cuts to the crux of the argument. David notes in one of his posts above that L & D/HR departments are being remarkably arrogant in believing that they can teach science better than qualified scientists. If, for example, there were a research group within the School of Physics & Astronomy which focussed on Physics Education – as is now the case, for example, in the university where I did my first degree, Dublin City University – then this would be an excellent source of new ideas and strategies. However, L & D do not have the subject-specific knowledge required to contribute effectively to the teaching of physics. Any physicist is much better qualified to apply the teaching strategies outlined in the literature than a member of the L & D unit.


  • I would echo the comments of Dr J and Philip M. Advice on giving a science lecture from someone else who actually does it, preferably someone more experienced than you, and possibly from someone who both does it and thinks explicitly about how to do it, is useful.

    A generic session on “how to do a science lecture” from a “trainer” is almost always useless, in my experience.

    And the major downside of in-house “science education” units, like the one Philip mentions, is precisely that they tend to become focussed on “analysing generic process” and thus rapidly transform into people whose advice is no longer useful to the folk at the coalface. Contrastingly, the most useful thing such education research folks do, as far as I can tell, is organise workshops where you can hear from, and swap ideas with, other coal-face types.

    I have sat through a fair bit of generic skills training, most rather unhelpful. As a general comment, too often what “generic skills training” does is:

    (i) bustle in self-importantly
    (ii) give a 2 hr “training session” putting a jargon-rich formal framework on something that already goes on; and
    (iii) then congratulates itself loudly on having achieved something when it turns out people are actually reasonably good at whatever it was. “Of course they are, that’s because of the training course” …not.

    A classic example of this in academia has been generic skills training for postgrad students, mandated by the Research Councils and thus now compulsory everywhere.

    Science PhD students, by the time they finish a PhD, have “transferable skills” in analysing problems, analysing literature, writing, problem solving etc etc. But they learn these from 3 yrs of doing, from watching it done, and from 1 to 1 advice from supervisors. They don’t learn them in a 2-hr training session on, say, “writing your thesis”. But HR and the trainers, all the way up the line, busily congratulate themselves for the success of their programmes. It is a joke.

  • Just to say I thought your article was great on HR gobbledegook and I now work in HR! Actually, I have a perfect view of both science and HR as I am a senior research scientist whose funding ran out and now manage a new University programme for training (yes, training!) principal investigators! It actually makes sense to give PIs all the information they need to manage groups rather than trying to get competitors to help them out, so I have been designing an appropriate Programme for them see http://www.admin.cam.ac.uk/offices/personnel/staffdev/pi/. It is early days yet but people seem to find it helpful.
    In the HR world where verbosity currently rules and management-speak dominates, it may be possible to change this balance in HE and create an efficient, leaner and less grotesque HR function if you actually encourage more academics and scientists in! HR is a very wide remit and presents a short circuit into HE management. In my view, only by encouraging academics to leap across the divide and join in – can that divide begin to close.

    Dr Denise V. Dear,
    Academic Development Consultant – PI programme,
    University Teaching Associate,
    Staff Development,
    University of Cambridge,
    25, Trumpington Street,
    CB2 1QA
    01223 765786

  • Thanks to everyone for some really constructive dialogue. I was particularly delighted to get support from Denise Dear from Cambridge

  • David’s final comment very sensibly draws a line under this discussion.

    However, I also realise I have totally failed to make my point about learning. This is a great shame and very unsatisfactory. So I have revived my own blog – which had become more or less defunct – and posted an article continuing this discussion.

    I invite Philip, Dr J and anyone else interested, to continue the discussion of learning there.


    In any case I apologise to Philip for appearing arrogant. I think this may stem from my initial blast based on my own out-of-date experience of academic teaching. Clearly at least one department has moved well beyond this.

  • I got rather hauled over the coals on a business blog called Flip Chart Fairy Tales http://flipchartfairytales.wordpress.com/2008/04/14/a-scientists-anti-hr-rant/

    All my attempts to get a dialogue going there came to nothing, though the HR people who did contribute provided a pretty good example of precisely what I was grumbling about. They have real problems in distinguishing between myth and truth.

  • Oh dear:

    “If I don’t add value to the company that pays my salary, I’m confident that management will fire me.”

    “There is no problem. You are spazzing about nothing. The Happy Employee put it better than I can, “Except for academicians, who cares if it’s been validated by enough scientific studies (as long as it doesn’t do any damage…”

    Funny that they have no interest in the efficacy of their methods – it’s almost as if they think HR simply exists to do HR, which is rather the objection people have.

    On the one hand I think pop psychology ideas such as:

    “No one can hold more than about 5-7 things in short term memory. This often means that lessons can be improved by structuring them so that the student is told no more than about 5 things before they have an opportunity to use that information and this transfer it to long term memory”

    are the naive and unhelpful contributions you’d expect from an an unfamiliar outsider offering well meant but largely useless advice based on a very superficial understanding of the process.

    “A classic example of this in academia has been generic skills training for postgrad students, mandated by the Research Councils and thus now compulsory everywhere.”

    I formally complained to my funding body about the self-important morons that patronised and bullied their underqualified way around a range of useless topics when I did my PhD (they didn’t even flinch when the psychologists and neuroscientists called them on their pop-psychology nonsense either – reflective practitioner my arse). Funnily enough the funding body replied that they ‘couldn’t give a fuck what you think’ (not in quite those words).

    On the other hand, I do believe that there really are some basic skills that academic can benefit from. Anyone remember what power point presentations looked like in the late ’90s?

  • Oh yeah, the virus warning they were moaning about I get as well – looks like wordpress trojan downloader warning, have a look here:


  • As soon as I heard about the virus (only three people told me). I went to the site recommended by RS and the server folks did the quick fix at once, The next day he updated WordPress. I hope that cures the problem.

  • Here’s another sign of the degradation of science, Here is something from the National Institutes of Health

    ” . . ;Career Development Subcommittee are pleased to announce the May workshop entitled “Inside the Publishing Process at Top Journals”. This workshop will discuss what really happens to papers once they are submitted to top journals and the decision process that determines which papers end up getting published. Learn how to make your papers stand out from the crowd . . . ”

    So people are being told how to make their papers stand out by manipulating the system, not about how to do good science in the first place.

  • Agree it is a joke, DC, but it works a bit both ways. I went for an Asst Editor job interview at Nature about 10 yrs back. One of the questions I was asked was:

    “Suppose you see something really good at a conference. You approach the authors and ask them if they would consider submitting it to Nature. They tell you “[The journal] Cell will give us 15 pages, and refereeing guaranteed in 2 wks. Your Nature Letters are only 4 pages. Not attractive really”. So…. what would you say to the AUs to get them to change their mind?”

    Now I know that’s somewhat different, and all journals want the best science they can get, but in these political days the relationship between “top labs” and
    journals like Nature, Science and Cell is not all one way. You only have to see the “players” from the big labs and the Nature or Science science editorial staff schmoozing each other at the conferences to know it is a game with a variety of players.

    The other problem, of course, is that a paper in Nature etc etc makes a career these days, esp if you are sub-Professorial. It is widely seen as the best guarantee your grant will get funded, and hence that the Univ will want to hire you, or keep you.

    Other examples of the same trend in action, and probably familiar to many scientists reading, are “Who can we invite for a seminar this year that is on an RAE panel / grants committee”, or “Who referees my grants that we can invite to our Symposium”, and so on.

    One ex-HoD of mine used to tell us bluntly that this stuff was, in his view, the main difference between success and failure in science – and that was over a decade ago. He would usually add that if you weren’t doing this stuff then you clearly didn’t want to succeed.

  • So people are being told how to make their papers stand out by manipulating the system, not about how to do good science in the first place.

    “Suppose you see something really good at a conference. You approach the authors and ask them if they would consider submitting it to Nature. They tell you “[The journal] Cell will give us 15 pages, and refereeing guaranteed in 2 wks. Your Nature Letters are only 4 pages. Not attractive really”. So…. what would you say to the AUs to get them to change their mind?”

    I find these statements very interesting. Last week in the lab journal club we went over a recently published Nature article confirming something we all suspected. The paper was brief and to the point but a closer examination of the data, particularly (low resolution) images claiming to show co-localisation between two proteins, was unconvincing. Now nobody suggested the findings were misinterpreted, just that the researchers had perhaps overegged the pudding slightly in drawing their conclusions. Nevertheless the reviewers were clearly convinced. We did wonder if the reviewers had access to higher resolution or unpublished images satisfying any doubts they may have had about the strength of the findings. The short nature of a Nature article may have led to compromises in the quality of image data published leading to us mildly sceptical but far from cynical researchers remaining unconvinced at the strength of the data. I don’t know if this represents a general trend towards brevity at the expense of data in order to get papers published in high quality journals. Are the journals trying to cut costs by increasing the number of papers they carry while not providing enough online storage space to carry all the necessary data. It would be a sad thing indeed if data was restricted simply because of costs.

  • Have HR got hold of academe …?

    The THE article of 10 April 2008 and the responses on David Colquhoun’s blog give a valuable insight into the world of academe and the tensions between what is seemingly a minority of academics and those who would seek to humbly provide them with administrative and strategic support.

    HR is an expense and a burden only if one does not understand about opportunity costs. At employment tribunal the compensation for losing some cases actually has no ceiling; also the damage to relationship can be immeasurable. In a quixotic way HR would probably have no greater pleasure than to see organisations get to the point where everyone is appropriately skilled, works safely, considerately, optimally and maximises output for service users. On that day our job is done and we would be off to pastures new. At the moment this is utopia, ask any head of department or vice-chancellor.

    When a dean wishes to improve security in a faculty do they press gang students and migrant workers to dig a moat and install a drawbridge and portcullis? No, one would assume that they approach the university’s estates management service and commission security doors with swipe card access.

    If there is a theft from a laboratory do the post docs set upon the research assistants and students and cudgel them until they confess? No, they approach security services and engage the relevant authorities.

    So why do we lampoon and pour vitriolic scorn on HR managers who exist to be called upon when academic institutions need help to get the best out of some staff? It is probably done because it is an easy way for like minded people to get laughs.

    Let’s dispel a few misconceptions. HR does not manage science or any other academic discipline. HR is neither on the side of managers nor employees. Just as financial managers assist organisations with maximising the return on capital employed, HR managers assist organisations with getting the maximum return on their investment in staff, a cost that is normally upwards of 40% of the total budget. Why do organisations need assistance with people and their contribution? The odd thing is that in the main they don’t. On average 97.25% of workers engage in service provision and keep themselves abreast of whatever they need to in order to add value to their organisation. However, balancing this is the other 2.75% who justify the existence of HR and people management practices. Imagine the beauty of a paradox of 2.75% of staff requiring over 75% of an organisation’s people management time just in order to keep things working passably well. That is why virtually all academic institutions have some form of an HR management function. There is possibly no more complex thing to work with than a person who is minded to work against what an organisation needs to achieve for its service users, especially if they don’t know they are doing so. I believe the phrase is “There’s nowt so strange as folk”. It is a thankless task but someone has to help leaders to deal with the 2.75%.

    Was David Colquhoun sent a staff development and training booklet with a course in it on self-hypnosis? Has the THE published articles on the spectacular rise in teaching-only staff based on counts of staff contracts figures submitted to HESA being considered synonymous with staff full time equivalents? Is there anywhere on the planet where it is commonplace for women get equal pay for work of equal value to men? Questions like these can be dined out on, though only one at least is quite important.

    Training manuals are built up of learning events identified from training needs analysis of groups of staff. If a course on self-hypnosis is in a training manual then one can rest assured it is there because some group of staff had identified a need for it. Training courses are not dreamt up by subversive administrators looking for new age ways to upset academics. A method of dealing with a learning event that one sees but does not need is normally to not book a place on it. Writing a superior article designed to belittle training providers has all the value of undertaking research without any output or explaining a concept without ever having understood it. These are things that one just does not do.

    HR are not busily engaged in “writing competences”. Given that the THE is a paper for the brightest minds in society it would be inappropriate for this writer to launch into an explanation of the subtle differences between competences and competencies.

    In academia HR is in place for to help institutions sustain themselves in an ever more competitive global marketplace; so, simplistically, HR is on the side of all staff, of service users, the students who pay their fees expecting the best possible education and the people who wish to work for universities and expect to be treated in accordance with the myriad of rights and freedoms bestowed upon them by UK and EU legislation. HR is in place for the funding bodies who need to get the best possible return for their spend. This may all become more apparent when widening participation is successful to the degree that students regard themselves as customers with rights and ask questions about the learning they are buying and when funding councils step up the audit of spend in higher education.

    It is possible that there is something mightily wrong with a small part of academe if a minority of academics see the need to describe those in place to support them as “morons”. For scholars and educators to use this type of language and then rejoice in it and add even more intellectual vilification and epithets is difficult to reconcile. But thankfully this is not the norm. So onwards and upwards to that great day when there will be no need for HR, when self directed working teams lead academe, when optimal output and staff complete health and well being is achieved with no discernable guidance. Hurrah for revolution…!

    Gregory Fauce
    HR Practitioner

  • Thanks Gregory for that defence. Believe it or not, I don’t want to upset anyone. I merely want to defend what I believe to be the purpose of universities.

    Your start of by saying

    “tensions between what is seemingly a minority of academics and those who would seek to humbly provide them with administrative and strategic support.”

    Three things provoked this article. One was going round the USA and Canada, and finding that, just as here, the very mention of HR provoked howls of rage. The second was the article by Luke Johnson, and the third was Brain Gym. I’m afraid you are simply deluding yourself if you believe it is “a minority of academics”. It would be more constructive if you asked yourself how it is that you provoke this reaction. I suspect that it is because you are widely perceived as having expanded beyond your remit.

    Admittedly that is partly the fault of governments that encourage a Wal-Mart model for universities, but not, I fear, entirely. The change of name from Personnel, to HR was initiated by HR people themselves, in a plain bid to increase their power (or so I have read on HR sites).

    You are right to say that HR needs to be aware of all the legislation. But in other places you provide excellent examples of what, in my view, is exceeding your brief.

    You say

    “HR is in place for the funding bodies who need to get the best possible return for their spend”

    That implies that you can judge the quality of the “return for their spend”, and I don’t believe you are qualified to do that.

    Likewise you say “students who pay their fees expecting the best possible education” and that is right, But education is not your job, it is our job.

    I certainly did not describe HR people as “morons”: that remark was applied specifically to the Brain Gym episode. If you believe that Brain Gym can’t properly be described as “moronic”, I’d like to see your defence. I have no idea how that got into a training course, but I can’t imagine that it was demanded by any academic. You have failed to answer any of the specific criticisms that I made.

    As for the “subtle differences” between competences and competencies, that is worth a whole essay in itself, First, though, perhaps you should look at my posting about the people who are earnestly writing competences for “distant healing in the absence of the client“.

    You can rest assured that I appreciate good and helpful personnel management as much as anyone. A lot of the time we get it. I have picked out a few examples where we failed to get it, and that seems to me to be important. You’ll notice that the other HR person who wrote, supported my view, as did almost every academic who has commented. In fact I was delighted to see the constructive discussion about teaching methods that appeared in the comments. You will have observed, though, that the comments were made by academics who actually teach.

  • David,

    Thank you for your insightful response, I am particularly heartened that you confess to appreciating good and helpful personnel management. Given the far reaching impact of some of your articles and talks I am sure HR practitioners in general will now be better disposed to the debates that you are inevitably provoking.

    I might not have expressed it as clearly as I hoped but please may I clarify again that HR do not judge the quality of research, nor is education of students our job. In HE what we do in essence is assist every principal investigator, head of department, dean or manager who requires assistance with staffing or employment relations issues; ipso facto the technical evaluations and decisions are made by the research and academic leads. We are, you might say, your strategic partners. If you dispute this then you might wish to check how many of your supporters have successfully dealt with complex staffing or employee relations matters without assistance from HR. To be fair, if there is a problem with staff on your research project who are you going to call?

    Why does HR provoke the reaction that you suggest? Possibly for the same reason that some medicines taste bad. The positive thing is you have identified the feeling in some camps so HR can start to think through how to address this without compromising service standards. In a way I think your drawing out the sentiments has been very valuable.

    HR have no remit other than what we are invited to help with. The rest of the time, in the public sector, like any good resource managers, we strategise to help organisations develop the cultures that lead officers like yourself have identified will best maximise each organisation’s ability to deliver its service. Interestingly I note that you are from University College London, an organisation which seems to have risen impressively up world class HE league tables. I presume this encourages more staff to want to work for the college and more students to want to study there and more revenue from fees from overseas students etc. This would suggest that ‘managerialism’ must pay some dividends.

    I am not certain but I think the HR name change was probably to help the transition to recognising the value of human beings at work and helping organisations to get the best out of their staff by maximising the mutual benefits of the employment relationship. It sort of came in with people becoming more aware of their rights and expecting value for money from services and things of that ilk.

    The professional magazine for HR and development is called People Management (at http://www.peoplemanagement.co.uk ). This would be an ideal place to post if you want to try to influence HR on a national scale.

    Thank you for the thought provoking site that you are running.

  • It’s good to see some convergence of views.

    Yes, UCL is a place with a pretty good reputation, but I must disagree strongly with your conclusion that “This would suggest that ‘managerialism’ must pay some dividends”. UCL has had a good academic reputation for as long as I can remember. That’s why I applied for a job there in the 1960s. Its Pharmacology department (now destroyed in an act of wanton managerial vandalism) had already been famous for many decades. UCL has also a distinctive ethos (the “Godless Institution of Gower Street”) that stems from its foundation in the radical ferment of the 1820s and 30s. Both of these things account for the fierce loyalty that I and many others feel for UCL.

    I would contend that a university has no reputation as an institution. Any university, including UCL, has a reputation that is the sum of the individual reputations of a (relatively small number) of outstanding people who have worked there. The individuals who, collectively, account for the reputation will be quite different for a pharmacologist and for, say an art historian or English literature person. But if there are enough of them, the university as a whole benefits from their reflected glory.

    The fashion for managerialism, on the other hand, is very recent. To attribute the success of UCL, or anywhere else, to that trend makes no sense at all.

    It is far to early to say what the effect of managerialism will be, but my guess is that it could destroy reputations rather than improve them. The reason for saying that is simple. The sort of people who contribute to the reputation are exactly the sort of people who bristle when told they must report to a line-manager. I have been fortunate enough to know well three Nobel prize winners, and to work with one of them. See the comment of one of them here, They will not tolerate the Wal-Mart approach, and if is forced on them, they will simply move.

    The managerial trend could destroy the reputation of a university, for this reason, and also because naive methods of assessment could very easily result in the firing of the best people at an early stage in their career because they are ‘not sufficiently productive’. There is an example here.

    The trend, in all universities (including UCL), has been to remove progressively power away from academics to ‘managers’, but in the longer run it is that handful of eminent people who have all the power. There aren’t many of them, and they are in great demand. Reputations that have been built over 100 years could be ruined in 10 years.

    We’ll see.

  • “On average 97.25% of workers engage in service provision and keep themselves abreast of whatever they need to in order to add value to their organisation.”

    a *mean* of 97.25%? That’s pretty impressive to be able to quote a (semi-qualitative?) value to an an accuracy of a hundredth of a percentage point?

    Honestly, if someone emailed me and asked something along the lines of?

    “Do you engage in service provision and keep yourself abreast of whatever you need to in order to add value to you organisation?”

    I really, truthfully, wouldn’t know what to answer – the question has no meaning (to me, at any rate).

    But seemingly one can generate statistics that say 97.25% of staff do…..

  • Ah yes, “‘Performance management is a waste of time,’ claims HR professor”.

    That is very interesting, not least because it comes from an insider. I like these quotations.

    “A university might say it encourages teamwork and spend thousands on team-building exercises, then give an employee a personal development plan that is all about the individual. It doesn’t make sense.”


    “A report for the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education published last year said that a massive programme of investment in human resource management at universities had not improved the sector’s performance.

    The sector has been handed £880 million since 2000 under the Government’s “Rewarding and developing staff” initiative.”

  • David,

    An excellent essay, Change in Universities, “Technology Transfer”, and the Commercial World: An Irreconcilable Clash of Cultures” by Robert Miller has recently been posted on Andrew Chitty’s The Storm Breaking Upon the University blog. Robert’s essay covers a lot of ground including the damage that the RAE, citation indices, HR “managerialism”, and commercial interests are inflicting on academia. I think that readers of Improbable Science will find it an interesting and informative read.

    Best wishes,


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