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Appointments and promotions in British universities

di Geoffrey Crossick

The British system of university appointments and promotions combines, in what at first sight might appear to be a paradoxical fashion, on the one hand a relative absence of externally established rules, and on the other a high level of concern for procedures devised to maximise the fairness and transparency of the system. I would not wish to argue that the system is perfect, far from it. However, being aware of parallel systems of appointment and promotion in other European countries, it does seem to me that the system in Britain is one where an absence of formal and state-instituted rules, far from reducing transparency and fairness, serves to increase it. Not to maximise it, not to preclude the operation of the forces of patronage and even at times of prejudice, for these are hard to exclude from any system, but probably to keep those forces more under control than one might expect.
Our starting point must be an understanding of the character of British universities and their relationship to the state. In Britain, universities are not formally state institutions. The universities in existence prior to 1992 were in fact established by Royal Charter which granted them formal autonomy. Although the ‘new universities’ created in 1992, mostly out of former polytechnics, have a different legal status, they share the basic characteristic of all British universities, which is that they are formally autonomous and not state institutions. They may be autonomous, a feature very significant for the whole appointment and promotion system, but they are of course increasingly constrained by government and the state. They are financially constrained by the state, which is the key source of funding for all universities in Britain. However, the state’s funding of universities is not by direct allocations to each institution, but through the role of intermediary funding councils for England, Scotland and Wales. It would be foolish to suggest that these funding councils – of which by far the largest is the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce) – were not intermediaries for government policy. The finances which they receive to distribute to universities are dependent on their willingness to implement government policies. Nevertheless, the existence of Hefce and the other funding councils, is an indicator of the fact that universities are not state bodies, and not directly the object of state action (other than through parliamentary legislation).
The autonomy of universities is also constrained by outside forces in terms of the elaborate system which was constructed during and since the Thatcher years for assessing the quality of university performance, above all the quality of research undertaken and the quality of education provided, though here too it must be stressed that the assessment is not carried out by the state itself. The autonomy is further constrained by the curriculum and other requirements of accrediting bodies in professional areas – for example in law, engineering, accounting or psychology, by accrediting bodies which may carry state authority but are themselves autonomous of the state. Finally, universities are constrained by legislation, especially employment and equal opportunities legislation as far as the subject of this article is concerned, and by agreements with the trade unions representing academic staff. And, of course, by the European Union’s requirements with respect to the free movement of labour.
What does this all mean? The autonomy of British universities may be constrained by many forces, including the demands of public accountability and of government policy, but they are not state institutions, and that degree of legal and real autonomy is important for the whole framework within which posts in departments of history (and indeed in all departments, for the system which I shall describe varies between disciplines more in detail than in outline) are made. Two key issues for appointments and promotions arise from the degree of autonomy enjoyed by British universities. The first of these is that British universities are financially independent in their decision-making. They have very wide sources of income, amongst them government grants via funding councils; student fees; research contracts from industry and from state-funded research councils; student accommodation, restaurants, services; investments; the sale of property. Universities are free to spend that income as they wish, within the constraints of financial good management laid down by the funding councils. This means that any university will decide on the appropriate balance of its own expenditure – for example the allocation of expenditure amongst new buildings, new research facilities, new academic staff appointments, new administrative staff appointments, new teaching or leisure facilities, and so on. It is universities which create academic posts, not the state. If a history department wishes to appoint an additional lecturer or professor, it needs to persuade its own university to agree to it. The state plays no role in the creation of new posts. Changes in state funding do of course significantly affect the resources available to universities, but it is up to each university to decide how to spend those resources.
The second important issue arising from this autonomy is that the state plays no role in deciding which people are eligible for appointment to university posts (except in certain professional areas where legislation may set requirements). Each university is free to appoint whomsoever it wishes – there are no formally approved state lists of people eligible for appointments, nor are there state-imposed requirements which define eligibility more generally (for example, having a doctorate). This affects the appointments process in comparison with some other European systems. Of course there is a convergence of common practice – it is, for example, unusual for someone to be appointed to a university lectureship (outside some professional areas) without a doctorate – but this is normal practice rather than the result of any formal public requirements. The state plays no role in determining who is eligible, nor what categories of people are eligible, for appointment to university academic posts.
This is the essential structural context, without which one cannot understand the process by which a lectureship in a history department would be created, advertised and filled. Above all, without that context one could not understand the features that distinguish the process from that in some other European countries. One should perhaps add an additional historical feature – the absence of a tradition (partly Napoleonic, but not necessarily so) of a centralised state setting the framework for national meritocratic competition. The concept of the national concours or concorso has no established place in British educational or state culture.
So, let us assume that a history department decides that it needs a new lecturer, whether to replace someone who has resigned, or as an additional member of staff. How would they proceed? It should already be clear that they would follow procedures entirely internal to the university. They would, first of all, have to obtain approval to fill that post. The process for obtaining approval would vary. In some universities, a highly centralised decision-making structure would mean that an argued case would be received by the senior management of the university, and a decision made. In other universities, where financial systems are more devolved to faculties or departments, the decision would be made at a lower level. But a formal decision would need to be made to advertise and fill a lectureship. That decision would be based on a variety of factors – such as the pressure of student numbers within a department, the income generated by that department compared with the costs associated with it, research strengths, and the strategic importance of the proposed appointment.
I say lectureship, which is the first level of the academic hierarchy. The British university system is one in which people appointed to permanent lectureships assume that they have job security once their position has been made permanent, an issue to which I shall return. Universities do, in fact, increasingly employ academic staff on part-time or limited-term contracts, and the growth of such employment, which is the result of universities’ need for flexibility at times of financial constraints and fluctuations in student demand, has rightly caused considerable concern to academics’ trade unions. However, most posts remain permanent in practice, although not strictly so in terms of law. Although my example here is of a lectureship, the basic system which I shall describe applies to all new appointments, at whatever level: lecturer, senior lecturer, reader or professor. All those posts are equally created by the university – even professorships are entirely independent of any state role. They form a ladder of individual promotion, another separate subject to which I shall return, but a new appointment may be advertised at any of those levels.
So, a department of history has been told, by the university or faculty, that it can fill a post in history. The details of the procedures and practice will vary between universities, but the basic process is the same everywhere. The broad similarities are the outcome of different elements – the academic culture and procedures as they have evolved through the university system, and general legislation with respect to employment law and equal opportunities. The department will decide on the appointment it wishes to make. It will have received agreement to fill a post in, say, ‘eighteenth-century British history’. It will need to add flesh to the bare bones of that description. Initially, it will decide whether it wishes to identify any special desiderata in the advertisement (“The department is particularly interested in candidates with an interest in cultural or gender history”). The department will then draw up a document of a few pages describing the department, the teaching that would initially be expected of the person appointed (though that would be carefully qualified to give the head of department the right to ask a person to teach other courses), and the kind of person it wishes to appoint. Essential requirements would be set out (e.g., for a lecturer, a completed doctorate, research in some area of eighteenth-century British history, teaching experience) and desirable characteristics (an interest in cultural or gender history, high-quality publications, an ability to teach European as well as British history, and so on). This careful delineation of the desiderata for the post – the ‘further particulars’ of a post, as they are called – are drawn up with much more care nowadays. This is partly because they clarify matters and makes decisions easier for the committee making the appointment, but also because of equal opportunities law, which requires an employer to be able to justify a particular choice of person to appoint, if challenged in court by a candidate alleging discrimination on the grounds of gender or ethnic identity.
The advertisement would then be published, and the ‘further particulars’ sent to all people who responded to the advertisement and requested them. Few serious candidates would apply without reading the further particulars, for they would want to ensure that their application was written with that particular post in mind. There are no official places for announcements, but it would be normal to place advertisements as a minimum in the “Times Higher Education Supplement” (a national weekly newspaper for higher education), on an academic web site for job advertisement [www.jobs.ac.uk], and on the University’s own web site. A history post would possibly also be advertised in “The Guardian”. Just as important, however, is the process of sending details of the post to all departments of history in the country, and writing to individuals known to be prominent in the field, at home and often in other countries, to ask for suggestions of candidates.
A university committee (of between 6 and 12 members, probably at the lower end of that range) would be set up to make the appointment, specifically constituted for the post concerned. If it is only for a lectureship, then the committee would be principally made up of members of the department, though it might well be chaired by an outsider (e.g. a Dean) and might have some presence from other departments. More senior posts (senior lecturer, professor) would still have a significant departmental presence, but would also include more senior people from within the university. In my own university, the Vice-Chancellor (head of the university) chairs all appointments committees for professorships, though that is not always feasible in the largest institutions. It is normal if senior appointments are being made for the university to ask one or two appropriate and prominent people in the field from other universities to join the committee as external assessors.
Candidates who wished to apply would send in their application a letter of application which would often set out why the candidate thought he or she was particularly well-qualified for the post, together with a full curriculum vitae setting out experience, publications, research activity, etc, and naming two or three referees (all those who apply for the post will additionally send separately equal opportunities monitoring information, which enables universities to monitor applications and appointments in relation to gender, ethnicity, disability and so on). The appointment committee would see all the applications and meet to decide on those whom they wished to call for interview. It used to be the practice to construct a ‘long list’ of candidates for whom references would be sought before a short list was drawn up, but that is now less common. The main reason for this is what might be described as ‘reference inflation’, as the referees chosen by the candidate are more and more laudatory of the candidate’s qualities. Appointments committees increasingly trust their own judgement in drawing up the short list, and seek references only for the five or six candidates to be interviewed. Members of the appointment committee – certainly the departmental members – would be expected to have read some of the publications of each candidate in preparation for the interviews.
The format of interviews have become increasingly uniform. Each of the candidates would be expected to give a presentation – normally but not always about their current research. This presentation would be given to a larger group than the appointment committee, though the members of that committee would be present. The audience would also include other members of academic staff in the department, often research students, possibly interested staff from some other departments. There would be questions to the candidate at the end of each presentation. The presentations and questions might occupy about 30 to 45 minutes for each candidate, and would commonly take place on the afternoon before the formal interviews which were scheduled for the following day, or on the morning before the afternoon of interviews. At the end of the presentations, the members of the appointment committee would hear the views on the candidates from the other people present. There would then be a process of formal interview, with the appointment committee seeing each candidate in turn, for about 30-40 minutes each (perhaps longer for professorial appointments). The committee will have discussed the requirements of the post, and with those requirements in mind will normally have decided on the areas of questions to be put to the candidates. Questions would almost certainly cover the candidate’s research, plans for future publications, teaching experience, the courses they might teach and how they might construct them. Although research is very important in making decisions about an appointment, especially in strong research universities whose grades in the funding council’s assessment of research quality are crucial for university finance and departmental reputation, the other areas of responsibility remain important to any decision, and a good deal of attention is given to each candidate’s qualities and potential as a university teacher.
The appointment committee would normally wait until the interviews had been completed, and then systematically discuss the candidates whom they had seen, before coming to a decision on their preferred candidate, and on a second-choice (or even third-choice) should the person offered the post turn it down. The criteria and desiderata for the post will be clearly in the appointment committee’s mind when making its decision, and the chair of the committee would normally expect members of the committee to reassure themselves that their preference was not simply based on instinctive responses to a candidate’s personality or work (though these inevitably influence decisions), but on a consideration of the requirements laid down for the post. This may sound schematic and rigid, but generally is not. From my own experience the discussion of the precise criteria established for that post focuses the mind of members of the committee on the fundamental issues involved, and clarifies the strengths and weaknesses of different candidates. Discussions at this stage are structured but reasonably informal – the members of the appointment committee do, after all, know each other well and work together. They may take from half an hour to several hours, but about an hour would be normal in cases that are not complicated by having too many or too few appointable candidates, or by having deep divisions amongst the members of the committee. Where disagreement is clear, votes would be taken, though an effective chair tries normally to achieve consensus. The successful candidate would normally be informed by telephone within 24 hours, and would be expected to give a definitive answer to the offer of the post within a few days. Although university appointments are normally subject to approval by the university’s Council (the most senior committee of the university) that is a formality, and the appointment committee is, in effect, the body which decides. There is no process of further discussion at other levels within the university, and certainly no process of discussion or approval outside it.
I referred above to the fact that (except where temporary appointments are explicitly being made) new lecturers are appointed with a view to their post becoming permanent, but without immediate permanency. The system is known as ‘probation’, and involves a period in which a lecturer is expected to confirm that the original decision to appoint him or her was indeed a correct one. In other words, to demonstrate that he or she is a competent researcher, teacher and administrator. In most universities the period of probation is three years, though some have moved to five years. During the period of probation the lecturer is expected to have a mentor or adviser within the department, and regular reports will be made to the appropriate university committee in order to identify any incipient problems, with a view to remedial action being taken. The period of probation is not generally expected to constitute a major hurdle for a lecturer to cross – it is not the equivalent of acquiring tenure at a US university. It is rare for lecturers not to be given permanency. Although administration and teaching are required capacities, permanency in reality constitutes a means for universities with a strong research mission to remove a new lecturer who does reach the right level of research activity or, to be precise, research publication. In a world where the research assessment exercise is so important to departments and universities, that has become an increasingly important consideration. Nevertheless, failure to be granted permanency is rare, and especially rare in history. The decision to grant permanency – and therefore to deny it – rests with a university or faculty committee, and although it will normally receive a recommendation from a department, the decision to deny permanency (and the rights of appeal and possibilities of legal action) are sufficiently serious for the committee to explore the issue closely and not simply rubber-stamp the department’s recommendation.
Let me now turn to the system for making promotions from one grade to another within a university: from lecturer to senior lecturer, senior lecturer to reader, and on to professor. These procedures probably vary more between universities than do those for making appointments, but the broad parameters are similar. As with initial appointments, the process is entirely internal to the university (though universities will normally seek the views of external assessors from other universities). For each level of promotion, the university will publish clear criteria. For promotion to senior lecturer this will usually require assessment on the basis of a lecturer’s research, teaching and administration; promotions to reader are conventionally on the basis of research alone; while promotions to professor rest almost entirely on research in the case of universities in which research is a central part of their mission, whereas other universities (mostly ‘new universities’ created in 1992) will give major weight to teaching and academic leadership, alongside research, in making professorial promotions. The essential feature at all levels is that detailed criteria are published within the university to guide the committee which makes decisions on promotions.
Promotions are normally entirely competitive within a university: the university decides how many promotions to have in any given year and at what level (a decision based on financial but also strategic considerations, for example the need to release promotion bottlenecks and maintain morale). Sometimes the competition will be across the whole university – classically the case in smaller universities – but often it will take place at the level of a faculty, with a given number of promotions available in humanities, for example, and a competition between candidates within the faculty. Candidates will either be invited to put themselves forward for promotion, or the senior staff in departments will be asked to make nominations from amongst those candidates within their department who wish to be considered for promotion. There is thus often a filtering process within a department for promotions to senior lecturer (though there will normally be some procedure for appeal outside the department where a particular lecturer feels unfairly treated). In the case of promotions to professor, however, individuals most commonly apply directly to the university committee themselves. The promotions committee might be a university-wide committee, or in large universities a faculty committee. The composition of these committees varies. In my own university, the committee to make professorial appointments is chaired by the Vice-Chancellor (head of the university) and contains two Pro-Vice-Chancellors (deputies to the Vice-Chancellor) and a number of professors appointed by the Senate, the university’s senior academic council. The university-wide committee to make promotions to senior lecturer and reader is chaired by a Pro-Vice-Chancellor (in this capacity I myself chaired this committee), contains two other Pro-Vice-Chancellors, the Deans of faculties, and about six members of academic staff, drawn from amongst senior lecturers, readers and professors, appointed by the Senate. In universities where there are faculty (as opposed to university-wide) promotions committees, these will obviously be drawn from departments closer to a candidate’s own.
The decision-making process by promotions committees will differ in detail across universities, but will be similar in general terms. The committee will receive an application from a candidate for promotion, setting out at length their experience and achievement under the different criteria (classically teaching, administration and research for promotion to senior lecturer). They might receive detailed comments from the senior staff of the department. The committee will discuss each candidate, and decide which are sufficiently strong cases to move to a second round, in which the written opinion of referees (named by the candidate, and generally people whom they expect to write well of them, though their expectations are not always confirmed) and external assessors (chosen from experts in the candidate’s field). The external assessors are meant to be advising the university rather than supporting the candidate, and their written reports on the candidate’s research and publications usually carry considerable weight. The promotions committee, having received all the relevant material including assessors’ reports, will then rank the candidates in the competition. In some institutions there will be constraints, such as the requirements to balance promotions across the different parts of the university or faculty, but in others it will simply be an open competition to fill the number of promotions available.
I have described promotion procedures that are elaborate, increasingly transparent, and based on increasingly explicit criteria. Although they operate within the great majority of promotions within the British university system, there has been a counter-tendency in the last decade or so which works in the opposite direction. If a member of a university’s academic staff applies for, and obtains, a higher-level post at another university, they will often seek from their own university what is known as a ‘counter-offer’. Their current university will have to decide how much they wish to keep this member of staff, and whether they wish to offer him or her an equivalent promotion, a higher salary, or both. The decision often lies with the Vice-Chancellor. Although the Vice-Chancellor will be constrained by requirements to consult relevant colleagues, and to obtain the views of external assessors in the case of promotions, it is a practice whose expansion has caused a good deal of concern. It cannot replicate the care and transparency with which internal promotions are made, not least because of the need for an urgent decision. It can lead to individuals who failed to get promotion in internal competition nonetheless obtaining it by this route. It is a practice increased by the Research Assessment Exercise and the competition amongst universities to attract and to retain good researchers. It is a practice which stands in contrast to the mainstream system, and its growth has caused some concern.
The mainstream promotion procedures have, nevertheless, become increasingly explicit and transparent over the years – in response to pressure from academic staff, academic trade unions, and a desire on the part of institutions as a whole to create appointments and promotions systems in which patronage and prejudice are minimised. It cannot succeed entirely, and the procedures by which external referees and above all assessors play a significant part in promotions does ensure that the power of academic networks and patronage is difficult to eliminate entirely. Nonetheless, my sense is that patronage plays a far smaller part in appointments and promotions in Britain than in a good number of other European university systems. I suspect that it has a larger part to play in the natural and physical sciences in Britain, where research groups and funding networks are of considerable importance, than in the humanities and social sciences. It is striking, for example, that recruitment to a lecturing position in the university where one was a research student is very much the exception in British universities, local recruitment is less common than in many other countries, and local patronage structures are relatively weak. In this short article I have tried to present the essential features of the system of appointment and promotion in British universities – some examples have been drawn from history, but the system is essentially general and not specific to any one subject. It is, of course, difficult to assess how successful it is, and any such assessment would require one to define the criteria for judging success. It does have significant weaknesses, of which the way in which the proportion of women steadily declines as one rises through the academic hierarchy is a problem concerning many people inside and outside universities, though it is of course difficult to identify which elements in the promotion system might be causing the problem, as opposed to wider features of universities and the society in which they operate. In fact, concerns about the appointment and particularly the promotion of women has led to universities aiming at a greater level of transparency in an attempt to safeguard against unconscious discrimination. My role as Dean and now Pro-Vice-Chancellor may, of course, have given me not only a very close view of the working of the system, but also the positive view that is often held by people who operate a system as opposed to those subjected to it. Nevertheless, having seen and heard about the difficulties experienced in at least some other European systems, I do believe that there are positive aspects to the British system of appointments and promotions. Above all the transparency and the devising of procedures to underpin that transparency which, paradoxically, accompanies a much higher degree of university autonomy than in many other European countries.

University of Essex