Red Tape

The announcement of a review of bureaucratic red tape in universities may bring either a smile of relief or a hollow laugh. Why are universities (and funding bodies) so entangled in this nasty stuff? Is it because they love to hire lots of makeweight administrators regardless of need (I think not!), or is it because the Government imposes endless layers of regulatory checks and balances? Once upon a time, before Margaret Thatcher’s suspicions alighted on academia (if you aren’t aware of this history, I recommend Jon Agar’s Science Policy under Thatcher to fill you in, an open access pdf), there was less determination to scrutinise academics’ every move. It wasn’t academics who dreamed up ‘impact’ as something we all needed to have if we were to be funded; it wasn’t the bench scientist who thought the REF was a desirable way of measuring university outputs and thereby creating some of the myriadleague tables we are now plagued with. The design of forms for research grants is just another example of evolution rather than intelligent design.

So, it is hard not to believe some good might come out of this recently announced review. Who wouldn’t want to cut red tape? However, it does rather depend which particular bits get cut. To give an example of a particular form I’d love to see simplified, one that I cited to a senior UKRI employee recently, I’m all for scrapping the format of the referee’s form for UKRI. It comes in many parts, which tends to lead to a lot of tedious repetition – tedious for both the referee to write and equally for any soul who has to read it before a committee meeting – but that fragmentation often ends up making it extraordinarily difficult actually to express a coherent and accurate assessment.

Once upon a time, a referee form simply asked for the grant to be judged in free-form text, so one could more easily say this bit is good, that bit is bad, but overall it’s likely to be illuminating/rubbish or whatever. Now, the requirement to address numerous specific criteria means that a distorted perspective can so easily accidentally be transmitted, and words need to be dreamed up to cover issues that perhaps aren’t so relevant to a specific grant. I’m sure the intention behind the form’s creation was good, and probably driven by concerns about issues that too often got overlooked such as researcher training, but it’s overly complicated and not fit for purpose in my view. Time for some pruning back, I think.

The news that the link between Athena Swan and funding was to be broken with no clarity about what might ensue predates this recent announcement but – as the Athena Swan Review Group recommended a year ago (I was a member) – there is no doubt that the Athena Swan process needs its bureaucracy lightening. AdvanceHE seems to be moving slowly and, I might say, confusingly towards implementing the Review’s recommendations. The tardiness towards introducing a more fit-for-purpose application procedure is to be regretted. Nevertheless, whatever shape the process may take in the future, as with the referee forms I mention above, some things are much harder to capture than others. This was the reasoning behind the Review’s recommendation to implement a culture survey, so that the lived reality in a department could be captured and assessed.

To give an example of what fundamental behaviours will never be caught by a form of metrics and good intentions, let me cite an example of sickening public behaviour I watched on a webinar recently. This was not organised by an academic institution, although academics were involved, and many minorities would recognize with a sinking heart the behaviour I observed. A panel discussion was the particular format of this webinar, with a white male chair, who was a non-academic, and two men and two women as the panellists. What ensued was that the women were persistently interrupted by the chair, the men never. One of the women tried to intervene to shut the chair up when he – yet again – jumped in to silence the other woman. As a tactic it didn’t work; the chair was impervious to this attempt. The male panellists did nothing.

That, as I say, was not a meeting in an academic setting, but it is too easy to imagine exactly the same occurring in a department meeting. Indeed, one hardly needs to imagine it because many readers will have seen something similar at first hand. It infuriates me that it is the women who have to attempt the corrective measures, while the men sit complacently – or blindly – by. My first ‘excuse’ for the chair was that he was simply old (he certainly looked it!) and out of touch with current social norms. A quick Google about him, however, indicates he’s somewhat younger than me, so I feel less forgiving.

Men as allies has become something of a ‘thing’, but at times like this it is crucial that they step in to ensure all voices are heard equally. It was outrageous for the chair to treat half of the panel as second-class citizens by virtue of their chromosomes. But, no amount of form-filling by a department will capture such noxious behaviour, particularly if it happens to be the head of department talking down those who don’t conform to an expected ‘cis white male’ norm. All one can hope is that processes such as Athena Swan, once they are tidied up and our recommendations carried through, facilitate the honest dialogue about what goes on in a particular institution to highlight inappropriate and damaging behaviour.

Getting rid of red tape could be wonderful. I’ve highlighted one example of where simplification of forms could really help (in my experience) and one where no amount of form-filling will necessarily capture reality. Every reader will have their own favourite examples. I worry, though, that as long as this Government (indeed, any Government) feels academics are not to be trusted – viewed as too radical, or at least as containing too many ‘well-meaning Guardian readers against the bomb’, to quote an old CND badge – forms will continue to be a staple of our lives, forcing us to jump through hoops, provide numbers of dubious utility and never, unless it is in the mythical beast that will be ARIA, just allowed to get on with our jobs using some common sense and constructive imagination.

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1 Response to Red Tape

  1. I really appreciate your article Athene. My first instinct was to celebrate for my fellows across the pond, hopeful that your bureaucracy burdens could be lightened. However, your discussion of things that can never be captured in a form gave me cause to stop and think. Research is all about measuring the unknown and recording it, so we can learn and move forward. While the chair’s behavior might not be captured in a meaningful way in a form, do you think there is some way to record it to ensure future corrective action? Could a similar way be used to address other atrocious behaviors such as racism? I’d like to know what you think.

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