Tag Archives: Faculty Professional Services Project

subtext 189 – ‘imaginative thinking subtext’

Every so often during term time.

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In this issue: editorial, recruitment driveVC swan songpensionsbailrigg fmdundeeoverheard on the spineart degree show reviewletters.


And so, we are almost at the end of our sixth VC’s tenure. Professor Mark E Smith, CBE (as of a few weeks ago), perhaps has not quite lived up to the rock star credentials of his namesake. He made a strong start and endeared himself to large parts of the University community by scrapping two schemes overseen by the previous incumbent, namely the proposed (or threatened) merger with the University of Liverpool, and the dreaded Business Processes Review (BPR). He is well-liked by many senior staff at the University, and courteous and relatively even-handed in many interactions with the University community. In talks to wider groups, he has a tendency to focus on detail and technicalities, particularly for contentious issues (see report on the VC all-staff meeting, in this issue). And he has amused some colleagues with a few verbal quirks, using characteristic metaphors such as ‘taking the temperature of the room’ at Senate to decide what Senators wished to do (some of whom might have preferred to be given the opportunity to vote on issues, rather than have their will interpreted in this way).

Relations with staff seemed to sour considerably at the start of the ongoing pensions crisis, where the VC looked rather disconnected and uncaring compared to other VCs, who not only made public statements of support for their staff, but in some cases even stood with them on the picket lines. When the VC did visit the Lancaster UCU picket line, he was dropped off by his driver in the University’s official Jaguar, and then proceeded to attempt to answer questions via megaphone, in his usual technical style. There was little sense of solidarity with staff, despite his claim that his own pension was also affected. He may have been put in a difficult position in this regard due to his role as the chair of UCEA, which represents employers’ interests, and his own substantial pay package.

Other developments during his tenure (see subtexts passim), including the Professional Services Project (the BPR by another name?), changing the Professional Development Reviews of old into a Performance and Development Review, the destruction of the University Court, the disempowering of Senate, the incidents involving bigoted material and behaviour among the University community, the realisation that we have a massive gender pay gap, and the increasing centralisation and managerialism that have crept into many the University’s structures and processes, will do little to leave good memories of his time here.

It may be that another VC would have done far less to arrest or at least slow the flood of utilitarian thinking and marketisation that afflicts the higher education sector, in the face of government policies that very explicitly push in this direction of travel. It is clear from the initial consultation of staff during the new VC’s recruitment process that many staff wish to find a new leader who will stand with staff and students against these trends, rather than attempting to explain them away. Despite this, it is likely that Mark Smith will be remembered as someone who worked hard for the University, and cared a great deal about his work – which is more than can be said about some VCs! We wish him and the staff and students of Southampton University the best of luck in their future endeavours.



Once in a while something amazing happens. The University decides to engage with its Professional Services (PS) staff (albeit mainly those located in the Faculties) about their working lives in a way that’s pretty good: a huge consultative exercise about how things can be made better, a listening exercise where participants feel heard and valued.

Then, at the point when the results have been taken on board and digested, somehow everything collapses into a black hole of management-speak and vague promises.

Such has been the Faculty Professional Services Project (FPSP, acronym fans!). For nearly two years this wide-ranging project covered everything from the student experience, through the support needs of staff supporting research projects, to career progression, and culminated in a presentation to PS staff on 29 January 2019.

Starting promisingly with refreshments, the next hour consisted of senior management and faculty managers presenting the results of the project. Things will be done, we were told. Some things were already being done, but the work is very complex. Some of the recommendations of the project already align with some other things that are happening. Some stuff has been found to work well in one area of the University and can be rolled-out to other areas. And, of course, due to lack of resources, we would have to find ‘creative’ ways of doing things.

This blandness was underscored by the visuals: the screen behind the speakers played headshots of all the project contributors on a perpetual loop. Whilst this gave a nice warm glow initially – oh, it’s so-and-so from that Department! – after ten minutes it had a dizzying, almost hypnotic effect. As a result your subtext drones confess that they found it pretty hard to stay focused, and had to resort to trawling the official news sources to conjure up this description of events:

‘Almost two years after the project started, the project has resulted in many improvements at our University, including:

– A new microsite designed to help you develop your skills and plan your career at Lancaster;
– A new submissions and feedback portal for student assessments (cf. this issue’s editorial);
– Stronger links between student wellbeing support services and a proposal for a case management system;
– A new combined office model for student administration;
– The collaborative approach of the project resulting in changes to the way many of the participants work.’

Towards the end of the hour, your subtext drones were jolted out of their light trance by the announcement from Paul Boustead that PS staff were unlikely to ever have parity with academic staff. Whilst that’s probably not news to most University staff, it’s a pretty bald statement from the Head of HR. Shortly afterwards the ‘loop-of-faces’ was broken by a screenshot of a soon-to-be-launched ‘Career Management’ portal. This will be a one-stop shop for PS staff looking for career support, including advice, coaching, information on ‘job families’ and secondment opportunities. There then followed a bit of a pre-emptive telling-off: if we offer secondment opportunities, you have to take them. Little recognition there for staff on fixed term contracts, nor much consolation for staff who want to stay in their current roles, but actually get a level of pay that reflects the work they actually do.

The Q&A session at the end revealed further concerns about job families, the approach to the combined office for student administration, and a fleeting mention of the gender pay gap (although two questions on this submitted via iLancaster were ignored).

In short – whilst all the presenters acknowledged that the project was one of the best pieces of staff engagement the University has achieved, the event itself was a wasted opportunity to build on the goodwill generated amongst Faculty Professional Services staff during the project, and limped towards a self-congratulatory, well-meaning, ‘we’re on it’ piece of backslapping. The following comment, overheard at the end of the presentation, pretty much sums up the experience: ‘What was that all about, then?’

You can see the full video of the event here [staffwall]:


Final reports from the project are here [staffwall]: