This is the first part of a three part series about promotions and careers in UK universities. This first post focuses on “administrative, professional, and managerial” (APM) staff, although I touch issues related to other job families, especially research and teaching. A second blogpost will have more to say about academic promotions, and a third with some thoughts on possible changes and reforms, and a few things I’ve learned over the years. I’ve not written the second or third yet, but I’m going to publish the first in the hope it motivates me to write the others faster.
Opportunities for career progression and promotion and the level of fairness and transparency and consistency (or lack thereof) is inevitably a hot topic in every sector. However, I have a theory that the situation in universities can be particularly problematic because of mutual envy and incomprehension between academic and non-academic promotions.
To a non-academic like me, academic promotions are odd. Sorry, but they are. It’s hard to think of many professions where it’s possible to be doing largely the same job – teaching, research, administration/management – while still having the potential for advancement from Assistant to Associate to full Prof, and then potentially up the various Professorial pay bandings.
Of course, that’s not entirely fair – the level of performance and expertise and expectations and responsibilities in those three core areas increases up the academic payscale. Or at least they should. I guess medical doctors are a good parallel case. And professional footballers.
APM staff – by which I mean “administrative, professional, and managerial” staff – careers work very differently. I’d note in passing that every institution seems to believe that its own chosen nomenclature for grades and job families (APM4, APM5, APM6) is universal and understood sector wide, when it’s only the pay spine that’s common, not the grade boundaries.
Re-grading of APM jobs is not really a thing
For APM staff, it’s almost impossible to be promoted in-post. For a job to be re-graded. I found this out the hard way. Instead, APM staff need to apply for an entirely new role. This didn’t always used to be the case. When I started what I laughably call my career, I knew some APM staff who started as something like ‘School Secretary’ and finished as ‘School Manager’ without a single competitive interview process. But I think that’s very much in the past now. We now have open competition for roles – apart from some specific cases during restructures – and that’s a Good Thing.
APM staff feel of level of promotion-envy because, as I said, job re-grading is rare. Because it’s not about how good you are at your job but about the requirements and remit of that job. No amount of over-performance makes the job bigger than it is on paper and in the organogram. This happened to me at a previous institution.
In hindsight I can see it’s because I was doing things that not only weren’t in my job description but also that weren’t envisaged (or indeed a requirement) for the role as originally set out. But I had an additional Very Specific Set of Skills. I was supposed to a Centre Administrator. I was not supposed to be writing marketing materials, finding opportunities for income-generating professional development programmes etc and therefore could not be rewarded or recognised for having done so. A similar thing happened to a friend working in the NHS, where what he actually did was completely different from his actual job description.
My sense is that institutions hate having to re-grade jobs, because it risks Setting a Precedent, and we all know how much management hates that. Re-grading one job has the potential to disrupt entire structures. It also raises the uncomfortable question of whether an ‘upgraded’ role could or should go to the existing postholder, or whether there should be a recruitment process. Again, I’ve known people have their jobs re-graded upwards and then deemed unappointable to the new role after interview or passed over for someone else.
King Louie syndrome
No, not any of the legion of French monarchs, but the character in the Jungle Book. (“I’ve reached the top and had to stop, and that’s what’s botherin’ me”). I’m hardly a ‘Jungle VIP’ and anyone who accuses me of being ‘King of the Swingers’ will be hearing from my lawyers.
But I have long since reached the top of my payband, which is the summit of what any organisation is realistically prepared to pay me for the role I currently have. It’s a tricky place to be… although the employers’ attempts to spin increments as counting towards cost-of-living pay rises are obvious and disingenuous nonsense, it’s certainly true that inflation bites more as a result of not getting an annual increment any more. Add to that the fact that pay increases tend to be targeted at lower spine points, which is fair enough in and of itself. But rinse and repeat often enough and pay differentials start to reduce and the premium for experience is lower and lower.
[To be fair, my own institution did add extra points onto the top of grades, allowing another increment for one year. Kudos, and sincere thanks for that. It still meant another substantial year-on-year real terms pay cut, but less bad that it could have been.]
It’s nice to move up an increment because it feels like progress, even apart from the extra cash. Not moving up an increment feels like stagnation and it can start to feel like failure. Even though it isn’t.
I suspect there are a lot of ‘King Louies’ in universities. Partly because university roles tend to be quite specialised, perhaps with no direct private sector equivalent. In some parts of the country there are groupings of institutions that are reasonably close together and which permit a bit of an internal market. In others, not so much. Where universities are very close, they’re usually very different – an ‘old’ university and a post-92. Given that, staff mobility doesn’t tend to be very high, which can limit internal promotion opportunities.
There’s another big issue which I’ll return to in a later post because I think it affects academics too. That’s that much of the sector is structured very much like a monopsony. A monopoly is when the is one seller… a monopsony is when there is one buyer. Or at least one pay spine. I’ll say more about common pay spines in part 3.
Many pay scales have what’s known as a “super-maximum”. There’s a top end of each pay grade, where progression to further increments is much harder. But my sense (and I could be wrong) is that progression into the super-maximum used to be more common and easier than it is now.
Does your institution include statements in job ads like “progression beyond this salary range is subject to performance”? And if so, is that actually true? At mine, it is true… technically… but until I started doing a bit of research for this article, I didn’t know that it was, and I certainly didn’t know the process. It’s never been raised with me, and I’ve never been invited to make that case for an extra increment. And when I did raise it, no-one seemed to know how it works in practice or even what “exceptional performance” looks in my kind of role. Would I be wasting my time? What was the benchmark to hit? No-one could offer advice. Felt like the response was just to shrug it out until the deadline passed for the year, or I stopped asking.
I mean, don’t get me wrong, we do have an employee reward scheme of which I am a proud beneficiary. I’m grateful for the John Lewis voucher and the towels I bought with them are lovely, but it’s no consolidated increment into the supermaximum, is it?
What to do, what to think
At this point there are four options for King Louie, and I’ve experimented with four at various points and I still have no settled view.
- Make your peace. The higher the grade, the fewer the roles, the steeper the slopes, the greater the competition, the harder to get evidence for ability to perform at a higher grade, and the harder to progress. Anyway… your pay isn’t bad, do you really want a lot more stress for a little more money? If you’re good at what you do, enjoy it (on the whole), and have tolerable colleagues and humane line management, what are you complaining about? We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. Universities talk a good game on career progression, as if that’s infinite, as if we’ll all get promoted. We won’t. Accept it, count your blessings, work to live, not live to work.
- “Up, up, up the ziggurat. Lickety-split”. Stalk jobs.ac, stalk Research Professional… lordy, even stalk the job pages of those rankers at Times Higher if things have really got that bad. Get across every possible opportunity, have a Career Plan, work out what you need to get to the next rung, and do it. Do, or do not. There is no try. Registrar before I’m 50 or bust! Crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and hear the lamentations of your line reports!
- Bit from column A, bit from column B. Eyes open for opportunities, but think carefully before leaping. How much more money would it take to induce me to have a longer commute? How much £££ would it take to apply for a role in a Faculty/institution that everyone tells me is an Unhappy Ship? How much £££ to move from oop north to dahn sarf, where the higher costs of living (and especially housing) will quickly gobble up your pay bump? How do I measure the amount of time and effort it takes to write some of these bloody excruciating applications against the actual probability of landing the job?
- Don’t derive all your validation and esteem from your day job. Develop a social media presence, write blogs, develop a professional network, visibility outside your organisation, and eventually a small side-line in external work made of up journalism and consultancy. And start running marathons, or some other classic midlife crisis behaviour. It’s worked for me. Kinda.
There’s a fifth option too, and I advise very strongly against it, because it’s an outstanding way to make yourself bitter and twisted. It’s…
- Combine being discontented with your current role/salary/opportunities with not doing anything about it. That’s letting opportunities pass you by because they’re not perfect, or because you don’t want to step out of your comfort zone. Whether that comfort zone is your role, your institution, your colleagues, your line manager. That’s wanting promotion/more money/greater status, but not being willing to do what it takes to compete for those opportunities.
We must pay the price of the life we choose to live – if we choose comfort and familiarity and the known, we can’t expect more money and status. If we choose to chase promotion and reward and challenge, we can’t expect stability and comfort. At least not for a while.
At one point in my career, I turned down a promising opportunity to apply for a role at another institution that would have required either moving house or commuting. It would have been a perfectly normal, manageable commute, but it would have been significantly longer and more expensive than my commute at the time. It would have cost me money in the short term.
I decided that I valued the extra time saved by not commuting more than the extra cash/challenge/opportunity. Fine. My choice. I’m not saying I’d have got the role, ‘cos I know it attracted some great candidates. But I can’t then rail against my fate. I had an opportunity. I decided against pursuing it. I pay the price of the life I choose to live. I can’t then complain about a lack of opportunities. And if you made the same decisions, you can’t either.
Why your salary can’t keep going up forever
Bit of a thought experiment. Imagine someone appointed at a young age to an administrative role that’s fairly routine in nature. They come in, and inside x years, work their way up to the top of their pay scale. Let’s further imagine that every year they get better at their job – they know more people, understand the institution better, know the systems better. That improvement may well continue even after the increments have stopped. A classic example is a receptionist who’s been in post for years and knows everything and everyone. They know where the bodies are buried, who hid them there and why, and the dark web contact details of the hired killers should a similar the issue arise again.
Now, we can have meaningful discussion about the importance of that kind of experienced receptionist to the operation of the unit and (more importantly) its culture and atmosphere. We could have a discussion about what fair rate of pay would be, and the value of the person who manages all of the birthday/retirement/leaving cards and collections. Right there with you on being appalled at discovering what grade some key APM colleagues were on.
But I think few people would argue that their pay could just keep going up an increment at a time indefinitely. We’d then potentially have a very experienced receptionist paid a lot more than his line manager, and a lot more than his newer colleagues doing what’s basically the same role. On one level, it’s an obvious point to make, but it’s what some people seem to expect because they see it (or think they see it) in academic staff.
Ultimately, should a receptionist be paid the same as (or more than) someone with a lot more responsibilities and a rarer skillset like a contract specialist or a financial manager or a librarian? I mean, maybe there’s a case for parity, but if you think that, then your problem is with Late Capitalism, not universities. What some people seem to want – perhaps without knowing it – is an indefinite (or at least vastly extended payscale) that’ll pay them more and more for doing more or less the same thing.
The reality is that all our jobs have a maximum salary, which we can pretend is solely determined by market forces, even though that’s not entirely the case. In the absence of unicorns, when we reach that increment limit it’s a case of (try to) step up, or put up.
This is all pretty obvious when you think about it, but I think a lot of people don’t. Especially when there’s the example of academic promotions, where it can look from the outside like salaries can just keep going up and up. Of course, in reality it’s not as simple as that, but it can appear that way.
What about academics?
Yeah, what about academics? Well… I think some of what I said is relevant – the preceding two sections apply partially to academics too. At least in the sense of attitude to feeling stuck at the top of your grade. Make your peace with it, look for another job/go all out for internal promotion, take up running, or a bit of all of it. But don’t do the railing against it/doing nothing about it thing. Please.
I said that academic promotions set a bad example to APM staff, and vice versa. I think some academics envy APM staff – being able to “just apply for another job”, perhaps not understanding how scarce/competitive they are. One complaint I regularly hear from academics is about the absurdity of it being easier to apply for promotion via a new role elsewhere than via your own institution.
But I don’t think that’s a bug. I think that’s a feature. And I’ll try to explain why in the second post.