ASAWU Supports the Senate Subcommittee Report on Performance Management

Dear Colleagues,

ASAWU reaffirms its endorsement of the Senate Subcommittee Report on Performance Management and Executive Bonuses, which stated that performance-linked incentive programs involved ‘fixing a non-existent problem, using an inappropriate method, imposed on unwilling staff’.  Further, we applaud the response of the Subcommittee to the Vice Chancellor’s reflections (see attached).

The Vice Chancellor’s approach to this matter and his circulated reflections (see attached) are disappointing as there is little engagement with the Report and the evidence it provides.

ASAWU appeals to Council to engage directly with the substance of the Report and to respect the motion passed by Senate to endorse and implement its recommendations. This statement reflects the position of ASAWU and is in no way intended to speak for the Senate Subcommitte. 


ASAWU’s specific concerns regarding the VC’s reflections

ASAWU takes issue with the VC’s position as, unlike the Senate Subcommittee Report, which is meticulously referenced, he provides no explicit references to peer-reviewed studies or substantive research and instead offers largely subjective evidence. Within the context of an important debate on institutional culture, ASAWU believes that it would be irresponsible not to hold the VC to the same standards of rigour that Wits expects from all academics.


Subjective Bias

Research shows that senior execuctives tend to overstate the positive contribution of their own innovations, while blamingmarket forces or other externalities when things don’t work out. Professor Habib must offer empirical evidence of the effectiveness of bonuses in an academic environment which is not rooted in his own personal experience.

Some of the literature on this subject suggests that ‘past approaches to such appraisal and performance management in higher education have had limited and confused purposes and their contribution to enhanced institutional performance and quality has been minimal. In some cases, the impact has been negative’ (Lonsdale, 1998: 303). Locally, Carl and Kapp (2004) gave a critical review of attempts to establish a performance management system at Stellenbosch University. They note that the drive to performance management in higher education is guided by ‘managerialism’ rather than by evidence that it improvesinstitutional performance. This is only the tip of a literature that is largely critical of performance-linked incentive programs in higher education.


Suggestions About Academic Integrity

Professor Habib also writes that the Senate Subcommittee Report produced findings that are ‘ideologically flavoured with persons marshalling only that evidence that is appropriate to support their conclusion’. This constitutes a serious allegation of a lack of academic integrity. ASAWU takes the position that this accusation is unfounded and damaging. The Report was the effort of five full professors from across the institution with support received from the Senate Secretariat. It is based on a comprehensive and balanced literature review, an institution-wide survey and a set of stakeholder consultations. The Subcommittee gave a sound account of its methodology and sources. This is a particularly important point in light of the VC’s counter-evidence, which to date has not met the same criteria.


Executive Bonuses are Inappropriate in a Public Institution

The recent histories of UKZN, HSRC and UJ do not offer unambigious support for introducing bonuses. As Professor Habibacknowledges, ‘there was a subsequent decline in the institutional performance of in particular UKZN and HSRC’. As the Senate report makes clear, one of the main critiques of bonuses is that they generate perverse incentives, wherein executives are incentivised to prioritise short-term gains at the price of long-term success (e.g. through-put). The decline which Professor Habib acknowledges may well be attributable to this dynamic, yet at no point in his reflections does he engage with the question of perverse incentives. The closest he comes is a brief reference to the ‘conflation of bad bonus practices with those that are more legitimate’. The fundamental problem is that ‘legitimate’ bonuses appear to be determined retroactively based upon their success, while ‘bad bonus practices’ only truly become ‘bad’ once their failures are manifest. This rhetorical sleight of hand means that countervailing evidence of the problems with bonuses can be dismissed because it refers – by definition – to ‘bad bonuses’.

One of the most significant findings of the report was that there is strong opposition to the introduction of bonuses from Deans, Heads of Schools and the academic community more generally. Professor Habib’s support for performance linked bonuses directly contradicts the express wishes of the Wits academic community, and his personal experiences on this issue should not be allowed to outweigh evidence-based research and collective opinion.

The Senate Subcommittee Report clearly demonstrates that the performance of the Wits academic community – both students and staff – has significantly improved on an annual basis in recent years. This improvement has taken place withouta bonus system, and is likely to continue regardless of whether a bonus system is adopted as general policy. This improved performance must be rewarded, which is why we have probation, promotion and wage increases. ASAWU has long argued that a system of pay progression within grades is appropriate. Bonuses should not be part of this equation because they too easily result in senior executives being rewarded for the energy and effort of people at the front line of research and teaching. The academic project is a collective endeavour, in which we all play an important part. Executive bonuses and other discredited corporate tactics should play no part in a publicly funded university.


ASAWU Executive

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