The incentives to create effective teams are all wrong

I just finished a meeting where I realised that the incentives provided for academics are all wrong (if you assume that having an effective department is a goal). If we want departments to be excellent (however you define excellence) we must accept that they can only get to that point if the staff work together as a team. However, academics are not incentivised to work as a team within those departments unless they happen to all be working on the same research project. While it’s true that academics are expected to work on larger projects in larger teams as they progress through the system, those projects and teams are typically not within the same department, or even institution.

The reason for this is that we have to keep expanding our sphere of influence, looking to work with colleagues from other institutions and then in other countries. As I grow as an academic all of the reward structures direct me to look for collaborative opportunities outside of my home department. If I ever actually manage to develop a high performing, excellent team in my own department, there is no way for me to be rewarded or even recognised in any meaningful way for that. OK, maybe I can tick the “Administration” box with a really big tick but there’s no way it’s going to give me an edge over someone else who is working on an international collaboration. All things being equal, “internationally recognised researcher” trumps “has developed a culture of excellence in home department”. And yet, many of the problems we experience in higher education can be traced back to poor / weak learning cultures within departments.

The more I see myself and my colleagues progress in our academic careers (through promotions and attaining higher degrees), the more I see the institution pressurising us to look beyond our own departments. This has implications in that we have fewer people committing to the responsibilities that are necessary for departments and faculties to run effectively. We need to coerce (sorry, encourage) each other to accept seats on committees because the time we spend on committees is time that we’re not working on a collaborative proposal. And even though the criteria for promotion does include wording to the effect of “Participates actively in faculty committees“, I doubt that my lack of engagement on those committees is going to impact my promotion, when I’m working on international projects and publishing fairly regularly.

I worry that the pressure from the institution on “senior” academics to increase their sphere of influence is going to have the following (unintentional) side effects on departments:

  • A reduced emphasis on the success of individual departments (because individual academics are rewarded on the basis of their collaboration outside their departments)
  • A lack of attention being paid to the undergraduate curriculum (because postgraduate throughput leads to income generation and publication)
  • Fewer staff willing to participate in department and faculty committees (because it takes time away from what really matters i.e. research)
  • Allocation of first year modules to staff with the least experience, when the reality is that our best teachers should focus their attention on the newest cohorts. But in fact, we are seeing a withdrawal of experienced staff from the undergraduate curriculum entirely (because experienced staff can’t afford to devote time to a process that won’t advance their careers i.e. undergraduate teaching)
  • Departmental processes gradually dissolving until the department limps along, with everyone doing the minimum necessary to avoid completely closing down (because “being part of an excellent department” doesn’t fit anywhere on my CV)

I’m sure that there are more but this is how far I’ve gotten in the time I allocated for this post. I don’t know what the answer is. We want our staff to progress in their careers but that progression comes with pressure – through the institutional incentives – to spend less time on ensuring that the department functions as a high performing team. In reality, departments just need to get by because as long as the wheels keep turning and the department doesn’t actually fall apart, there is no incentive on academics to build the internal relationships that allow for excellent teams to develop.

By Michael Rowe

I'm a lecturer in the Department of Physiotherapy at the University of the Western Cape in Cape Town, South Africa. I'm interested in technology, education and healthcare and look for places where these things meet.