By Heather Paver
Our Sustainable Excellence Strategy was developed at a crucial moment in the university’s history, at a time when the external environment was, and continues to be, profoundly challenging. To remain sustainable, we aim to reduce our cost base and increase its income by: investing strategically in programmes that will raise academic performance substantially and measurably; secure and maintain financial sustainability so that investment continues to drive academic excellence and enhance the student experience; and continue to augment the university’s international presence through the sustained excellence of its academic disciplines.
These aims are interdependent and achievable through a variety of methods including investment, income growth (particularly through postgraduate recruitment and increased grant and contract income), performance
management, restructuring, disinvestment and cost savings. Together, these actions will enable us to maintain our financial strength and also achieve improvement, which will benefit staff and students alike.
An integrated approach of several interconnected initiatives is essential to leverage maximum impact.
This article describes how our Sustainable Excellence Strategy operated in practice and the impact it has had on the attainment of our global ambitions.
The university comprises five academic colleges with separate and distinct areas of academic expertise. Each college undertook an analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of their subjects relative to their own benchmarks and those in other areas of the university. They also had an indicative financial target to achieve by 2012/13 to contribute to the university’s financial sustainability. Each college then put forward proposals for delivering the academic strategy and contributing to financial targets.
Raising standards through staff development and recognition
Investing in our genuine academic strengths is helping to ensure that we have a recognised number of world-leading subjects. To retain and sustain these strengths, the Sustainable Excellence Strategy has focused on: performance development review; initiatives that reward and recognise teaching excellence and contribution to the student experience; recognition of the vital contribution of our professors; senior leader development; and more robust probationary arrangements.
Start with the academic strategy as the key driver for change.
In an effort to link individual performance with our strategic objectives, the existing Staff Development Review Scheme was transformed into a Performance Development Review (PDR) Scheme for academic staff. This provides an individual with the opportunity to have a structured, constructive conversation about their performance and development needs, and for the university and individual to agree stretching but achievable objectives. The PDR Scheme was piloted in 2011 and has now been implemented across the institution. Our institutional aim is a 90% PDR completion rate for the 2014/15 review year. This is supported by a programme of training for academic managers which equips them to optimise the new approach and in particular to manage difficult conversations.
High-quality consultation and communication with all stakeholders is vital with such complex stakeholder groups.
With students now contributing more financially, strength in our academic disciplines and the student experience is essential. The university already had in place established pathways for academics demonstrating research excellence, but to demonstrate our strong commitment to excellence in teaching, we created and implemented a new teaching-focused career pathway in which academic teaching staff may be appointed to a teaching-focused contract with progression routes to Reader and Professor. These career paths focus on teaching and management/administration duties but exclude discipline-based research. Our achievements have led to improved ratings in the National Student Survey (NSS), the most comprehensive measure of student satisfaction within higher education.
This has been a truly remarkable year for Birmingham. Not only were we named University of the Year by The Times and The Sunday Times but our focus on continuous improvement across all areas of university life, from teaching to employability skills and student welfare, has clearly been recognised by our students. We believe that providing a first-class experience for our students is an essential part of being a world-class university and we are investing heavily in the future.
Professor Sir David Eastwood, Vice-Chancellor
Since August 2012, we have implemented professorial contribution banding and pay for our professors, following an 18-month development process in consultation with professors. The process allows us to recognise and reward their contribution. In addition, the introduction of a more responsive process for professorial and academic promotions containing more frequent appraisal points and a more rigorous internal and external
evaluation process has been introduced. Together, these have played a vital part in attracting, retaining and motivating the highest calibre staff and academic leaders by identifying their contribution and rewarding them accordingly.
Pilots are important in testing and refining the approach before roll-out.
The Senior Leadership Programme was created with the aim of enhancing support for our senior managers. The programme includes tailored training events, networking opportunities, a strategic change project, a leadership exchange, 360-degree appraisal and action learning sets. The programme is open to both academics at professorial level and equivalent professional services staff. It is embarking on its eighth cohort, and to date 99 people have completed it. Resulting behavioural changes have been wide-ranging, and in feedback, managers pointed to increased self-confidence, greater empathy in dealing with people, a strengthened ability to take a strategic overview and the acquisition of more reflective critical thinking skills.
It’s vital to make meaningful connections – particularly for academic colleagues – about how improving people management can improve academic performance.
Finally, with the aim of raising the bar in our academic performance, a revised academic probation arrangement was introduced that ensures a more rigorous review of probationary staff. This has improved the quality of assessment and increased the completion rate of probation records.
Read on - Financial savings and investment
|The University of Birmingham was the UK’s first civic university, and has the ambition and potential to become one of its leading global institutions. The implementation of its Sustainable Excellence Programme, that is the subject of this article, was designed to unlock this immense potential, reposition the University, and achieve a step-change in performance that will establish Birmingham securely in the UK’s top ten and the world’s top 50 higher education institutions.|
Heather Paver is director of human resources at University of Birmingham
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