Frequently Asked Questions - Task Force on Academic Employment: 2008

Main topics:


What's all this about?

The Task Force on Academic Employment is consulting widely on proposals for career progression for academics, the shape of a new promotions system. The task force's consultation document may be found Consultative document (90kb).

What was the background to the setting-up of the task force, and how has the task force got to this point?

The task force was set up in 2005 to consider a wide range of matters concerning academic employment. Since then, it has undertaken repeated and extensive consultation, designed to enable it to work with the grain of academic opinion and to develop a consensual approach in relation to the issues it is considering.

This led to its publishing a proposed 'Direction of travel (216kb)' last year: consultation on that document showed very broad support for the task force's emerging propositions.

It also revealed a clear view that it was no longer appropriate for there to be, in effect, a single career grade for the great majority of academics at Oxford. Since then, the task force has focused primarily on developing a new promotions framework within which senior academics at Oxford can in future aspire to progress.

Annexe A to the current consultation document contains more information on the history of the task force.

Who is on this task force?

Current membership (11kb) sets out the current membership. William James (University Lecturer in Physiological Sciences and Tutorial Fellow of Brasenose), Michael Spence (the previous Head of the Social Sciences Division), and Kathryn Wood (University Lecturer in Immunology and Fellow of Green) have also served on the task force in the recent past.

Promotions - current position; new proposals

What are the current arrangements for promotions in the University?

The current position regarding academic promotions at Oxford is effectively that there are none.

Those colleagues who are appointed to lecturerships may in practice only acquire a post of reader or professor at Oxford if one happens to be advertised in their discipline and they apply successfully for it, in open international competition.

While regular exercises have been held in which colleagues may apply for the title of reader or of professor, successful application leads to no change in salary or duties. Many distinguished Oxford academics have chosen not to apply in these titular exercises.

What is now being proposed?

The task force's proposals are designed to contribute to a new career structure for academic employment at Oxford at the level of lecturer and beyond.

Lecturer would remain the main academic grade at Oxford, but lecturers would be eligible to apply or be nominated for substantive promotion to reader or professor. Those who apply successfully would receive a relatively modest increase in salary. They would also join existing substantive readers and professors in being eligible for consideration in further competitive exercises for much more substantial monetary distinction awards.

A repeating cycle of competitive, cash-limited exercises would be set up, which would provide a clear framework within which senior academic staff at Oxford would be able to aspire to progress.

This will produce, over time, a significantly different profile of the numbers of substantive lecturers, readers, and professors at Oxford, which will be closer to that found in other universities, and will more closely reflect the distinction of our academics.

What would happen to the duties of those that get promoted?

There would be no automatic change in duties on promotion. However, the task force is developing arrangements under which all tenured academics, if they wished, could request a discussion of the balance of their future obligations, on a quinquennial basis. These discussions would be tripartite, involving the individual, the college, and the University.

Since there would be no automatic change in duties on promotion, college payments to tutorial fellows would continue after promotion.

Frequency and costs of the promotions proposals

How many of these promotions would there be? How often would general exercises be held? What will it all cost?

The task force has included in its consultation a purely illustrative model which assumes that in each three-yearly promotions round there would be 70 promotions from lecturer to reader, ten promotions from lecturer to professor, and ten promotions from reader to professor; and that in each three-yearly round to consider the making of new or enhanced monetary distinction awards to readers and professors, one in four of those eligible would see an increase in their award by one level.

This would entail a cumulative additional annual cost, at the end of a twelve-year period which would see four promotions exercises and four rounds to consider the making of new or enhanced monetary distinction awards, of around £6m.

Full details of this model may be found at annexe B of Consultative document (90kb).

The task force has no authority to commit expenditure by the University, and other university bodies would ultimately have to decide how much money could be spent on the new system. The illustrative model was, however, discussed with representatives of the Planning and Resource Allocation Committee and the Finance Division, and seen by Council, before the consultative document was issued.

Will colleges be expected to contribute to these costs?

There is no suggestion in the consultative document that college payments to those holding joint appointments would need to be increased if they successfully apply for promotion.

Why can't more promotions be afforded?

Decisions on competing priorities for university spending are not for the task force to take (it could, however, take a view on the balance of expenditure in the illustrative model as between funding for promotion, and funding for new or enhanced distinction awards). If consultation shows that there would be wide support for larger promotions exercises, that would be for Council to consider.

For its part, the task force wishes to ensure that regular serious consideration of the scope for focused investment in improving the terms and conditions of employment of academics, alongside a small number of other key priorities, becomes a primary element in future planning and resource allocation processes within the University.

Will promotions cease after that twelve-year period?

The grade profile after the fourth promotions exercise would see about 54% of senior academics at Oxford being lecturers, 23% readers, and 23% professors (as opposed to 80%, 4% and 16% respectively now). The task force has no fixed views on what a final steady-state profile ought to look like, but notes that at Cambridge, for instance, 49% of senior academics are lecturers or senior lecturers, 17% are readers, and 35% are professors. Although the structure at Cambridge is rather different, the task force believes that further promotions exercises are indeed likely to be necessary at Oxford beyond the twelve-year period.

Eligibility to apply

Who would be able to apply for these promotions?

Eligibility to apply for promotion in this new pattern would be limited to those holding the substantive post of university, CUF, faculty, or special (non-CUF) lecturer, or of reader. The task force believes that academics in their initial period of office should not be eligible (noting, however, that divisions may reduce the initial period of office for lecturers below five years in appropriate cases).

Why wouldn't other academics be able to apply?

University lecturers (medical) and other senior clinical staff are paid on honorary consultant scales which are considerably higher than non-clinical scales and which do not distinguish, in the same way that those non-clinical scales do, between the salaries of lecturers, readers, and professors. Such clinical staff are also eligible for NHS merit awards.

The chairman of the task force has asked the chairman of the Conference of Colleges to consider whether, in the new system, suitably distinguished college-only academics might be able to be considered alongside those holding university posts, the costs of any 'promotions' for college-only staff to be met by the college.

Super-scale merit pay, and substantive promotion on grounds of the job-evaluated duties of the role, are already available to those in the University's research (and other) grades. The task force does not believe that it would be appropriate to restrict this so that in future senior contract research staff could only be promoted within the competitive context of the new promotions system for lecturers and readers which it is now proposing.


What would be the criteria for promotion?

The criteria for promotion (and for monetary distinction awards) would include excellence in research and teaching. Excellence in administration and management might be a factor in some cases, and a record of basic good citizenship - including a normal irreducible involvement in tutorial teaching on the part of tutorial fellows - would be expected in all cases.

Promotion decisions would be made entirely on the basis of merit, rather than on differential departmental/divisional ability to pay.

 Detailed draft criteria are currently being developed by the task force.

What would be the procedures? Who would make final decisions on promotions?

Again, detailed draft procedures are currently being developed by the task force. It is likely that those under consideration for promotion would need to supply details similar to those required under the current Recognition of Distinction procedures - see pp. 4-5.

Again as under the current Recognition of Distinction procedures - see pp. 5-6, those under consideration would be considered by suitably constituted divisional committees, which would make recommendations to a central committee.

Unlike the arrangements for Recognition of Distinction, however, those recommendations would need to rank those under consideration, rather than indicating which applicants reached a threshold level.

Final decisions on which individuals, across the University, would be promoted would be made by a central committee of the Personnel Committee, which would have considerable external representation.

In the process, it is likely that extensive use would be made of external academic references from individuals not nominated by those under consideration.

Would people have to put themselves forward personally? Doesn't that tend to lead to unfair outcomes, and to disadvantage women?

All of those eligible would be invited to put themselves forward. Applications would be invited for 'promotion', i.e. lecturer applicants would not have to specify whether they were aspiring for promotion to reader or to professor. This reflects a recognition that applicants will have no knowledge, at least in the early rounds, of their likelihood of success under the new arrangements, and also reflects the early experience of the titular recognition of distinction exercises, in which applicants were required to specify which title they were applying for, and which tended to result in over-modest applications from women, and consequentially slightly skewed outcomes.

In addition, the task force has suggested that heads of department, heads of division, and heads of colleges would be required to nominate eligible individuals who had not applied if, in their opinion, serious inequities and/or gender or other imbalances would result if those individuals were not considered alongside those who had applied.

Outcomes would of course be monitored (by the Personnel Committee) from the point of view of equality and diversity.

How would these nominations work?

Heads of division, heads of department, and heads of colleges would be able to nominate individuals at an appropriate point during the process. Those who then agreed to be nominated would need to supply the same details supplied by applicants, so that both applicants and nominees would be considered consistently.

The detailed arrangements have yet to be worked out, and there are some procedural complexities: the task force is, however, clear that nomination would not require individual reviews of the performance of all academics. This is not being proposed by the task force or by any other body, in this or in any other context.

The point at issue is to try to ensure that if a non-applicant is thought to be on a par with the relatively small number of applicants who are likely to be promoted, he or she should be considered alongside those of similar distinction who have applied. It may be that this is best achieved simply through local peer-based systems designed to encourage suitably-qualified but modest colleagues to put themselves forward.

Doesn't nomination risk allegations of patronage?

Nominees will be at no particular advantage over applicants, and will be considered strictly consistently alongside them, on the basis of the same information, in the same process. Any perception of local 'favoritism' will be further allayed through the role of the central committee and of independent, external referees.

Will the establishment figures on the central committee veto unpopular applicants?

The task force is confident that the presence of highly distinguished academics from inside and outside Oxford on the central committee will provide reassurance that this will not occur.

It is also likely that there will be an appeal mechanism independent of the central committee.

Those who already have a title

What about those who already have the title of professor or reader? Would they have to re-apply?

 Those who have successfully applied for the conferment of the title of reader or professor under the previous recognition of distinction exercises would not, by virtue of that successful application, be at any particular advantage in these new promotions procedures vis-a-vis those who have chosen not to apply in those titular exercises. The basis on which Congregation approved the introduction of recognition of distinction in 1995 was that successful application would not lead to a change in salary; and that is the basis on which academics have chosen to apply or not apply in successive recognition of distinction exercises.

 Those who have successfully applied for the conferment of the title of reader or professor under the previous recognition of distinction exercises will, of course, retain their existing titles, but would have to make new applications in the proposed new exercises for substantive promotion.

Isn't that an unnecessary waste of time?

No - it is essential to guarantee fairness of outcome in the new promotions exercises.

Although many academics now have a title of distinction, many equally distinguished colleagues have chosen not to apply in the titular exercises (a specific condition of which was that success would lead to no change in stipend)

There are clear differences between a system which rewards, through a title, all those who meet a certain threshold and a system which must rank many distinguished academics in order to determine which of them may succeed in a competitive and cash-limited context.

Moreover, the sheer number of those who have a title of distinction would mean that financially it would not be possible to afford to give them (let alone also others of equal distinction who have not applied for a title) automatic substantive promotion under the new arrangements now being proposed.

361 lecturers or readers now hold the title of professor, following successive recognition of distinction exercises.

Promotions and performance-related pay

Aren't these new arrangements tantamount to 'performance-related pay'?

No. Performance-related pay typically involves relatively low base pay; the advance setting of specific individual performance targets; compulsory individual review of performance against those targets; and, on the decision of the line-manager, bonuses for those who best meet or exceed them.

What is being proposed here is a system whereby academics could, if they wished, be considered for promotion in a process similar to that obtaining in most if not all universities throughout the world, on the basis of optional consideration of their past achievements. A key element of it would be the views of fellow academics (including distinguished referees from other institutions), rather than of 'line-managers', on those achievements.

What do other universities, and other employers, do in this area?

Most if not all other universities hold regular competitive cash-limited promotions exercises of the kind now proposed by the task force. Other employers have systems under which promotion to a higher grade is available, based on the increasing demands of one's role, personal performance, or transfer to other duties (or a combination of these).

Distinction awards, special payments, recognition of distinction

Can we have more details on these 'substantial monetary distinction awards'?

Distinction awards, above the minimum professorial stipend, were introduced at Oxford in the 1980s and there are now twelve levels of award. These are available to statutory professors and readers on appointment; new or enhanced awards are also made in regular cash-limited, competitive exercises in which all statutory professors and readers are eligible to apply.

The Personnel Committee's Committee on Distinction Awards for Non-clinical Professors and Readers has just completed the most recent exercise to consider the making of new or enhanced awards. Taking account of previous awards made, and of enhancements that have now been agreed, the current position is that one professor/reader holds a distinction award of £66,810 per annum, two hold awards of £59,857, six hold awards of £53,070, six hold awards of £46,436, sixteen hold awards of £39,800, twenty-six hold awards of £33,105, thirty-four hold awards of £26,536, forty-eight hold awards of £19,902, forty-eight hold awards of £13,266, twenty-four hold awards of £8,848, and twelve hold awards of £3,232.

These are permanent payments in addition to the basic professorial salary of £62,062.

And what about the special payments that some lecturers already get above the top of the scale? Will those provisions continue?

In 2001, Congregation approved arrangements under which special provisions may be made to recruit and retain lecturers, when it is overwhelmingly important, in academic terms, to do so. These provisions involve the possibility of additional salary above the joint maximum. (In addition, the conferment of titles of distinction is possible in acute recruitment and retention cases.)

These provisions are used sparingly and rigorously, and the task force is convinced that they have been extremely successful in attracting very distinguished individuals to Oxford and in retaining highly valued colleagues. The task force is clear that these provisions should be maintained, alongside the proposed new arrangements for promotion.

At present, one hundred and nine academics are in receipt of such super-scale payments.

What would happen to 'recognition of distinction'?

The task force says in its consultative document that it is currently minded to conclude that general exercises to consider the conferment of the title of reader or professor should, in future, be limited to those who would be ineligible to apply for substantive promotion under these new arrangements (e.g. contract research staff and clinical academics). Others may prefer to keep titles and extra pay uncoupled; the task force remains to be convinced that the extra workload this represents is justifiable. It notes that an alternative would be to confer the title of professor on lecturers on their reappointment to the retiring age (and only to reappoint to the retiring age those who satisfied the current criteria for the conferment of the title of professor); but recognises that this, too, might not be universally supported.

Nomenclature, statutory professors, transitional issues

Are there any proposals to retitle the grades of lecturer and reader? Or to call everyone 'professor'?

The task force believes that the question of the titles to be ascribed to the three levels within the academic grade structure (currently called lecturer, reader, and professor) is of secondary importance, but still needs to be resolved. A number of respondents made suggestions or comments on this issue in the last round of consultation, and the task force recognises that there are likely to be strong and divergent views on this.

For its part the task force does not favour introducing the grade of 'senior lecturer'; and it sees difficulties in renaming the three levels 'assistant', 'associate', and 'full' professor since 'assistant professor' seems too junior for the current lecturer level. It sees some possible merit in the levels being labelled 'lecturer', 'associate professor' and 'professor' (noting that the term 'reader' is not well understood internationally).

The task force also notes that it would be possible, while retaining the financial and procedural details of its proposals on promotions, to conflate the two levels above lecturer into a single grade of professor, the bottom salary point of which would be the 'reader' salary referred to in the consultation document. If this variant were followed, all promotions would be to professor (and existing substantive readers would be redesignated professors).

The task force will continue to reflect on these points, on which specific reactions would be welcomed in the current consultative exercise.

Wouldn't the proposals make statutory professorships less attractive?

It is true that if the holder of a tutorial fellowship successfully applies for promotion and subsequently for a distinction award, and continues (because his or her duties would be unchanged) to receive a college stipend and a housing allowance, he or she would overall be paid more than a statutory professor of equal distinction (as reflected through the level of distinction award).

However, not least since that hypothetical fellow would have retained the college responsibilities which lead to the college payment, the task force is not persuaded that such a possibility would necessarily mean that the internal field for statutory professorships would be so weakened that a (rather expensive) general increase in the basic salary of each statutory professor would be justified.

The task force will, however, keep this point under careful review.

Won't the transition to the new system be rather messy?

Quite probably. It might include, for example, some individuals who currently hold the post of lecturer and the title of professor unsuccessfully applying for promotion to reader (the situation would be less anomalous if the two levels above lecturer were conflated into a single grade of professor).

The task force recognises that difficult transitional issues will arise as Oxford moves through a succession of cash-limited promotions exercises on the new pattern, given the legacy of the prolonged period during which promotion has not been available and many titles of distinction have been awarded.

In its view, however, these temporary difficulties do not override the prime importance of introducing a proper structure for career progression which opens up for lecturers the real prospect of substantive promotion to higher grades, which would in turn bring with it access to the many levels of monetary distinction award.

Any change in arrangements in this general area is likely to irritate some colleagues, but the alternative is to maintain a status quo which has been widely criticised. The task force wishes, despite the inevitable transitional issues, to set up a new structure for career progression which is fit for purpose from the point of view of current and future colleagues, and of the collegiate University as a whole.

Consultation arrangements

What are the arrangements for the Congregation Discussion of these proposals?

These may be seen at

How else can I make my views known on the proposals?

Please send your views to, by 19 January 2009.

What will happen after the consultation closes?

The remarks made in the Discussion, and the responses in the consultation exercise, will be carefully considered by the task force, and by Council, and final proposals will be developed.

Other issues

What else is the task force doing?

The task force is continuing to work on the other key elements of its terms of reference, with a view to producing further proposals. It believes that in addition to finalising detailed arrangements for implementing its proposals on career progression for academics through a promotion structure, its next priorities should be:

(i) enshrining consideration of focused investment in improving the terms and conditions of employment of academic staff as a key first element of future planning and resource allocation processes;

(ii) maintaining and improving the joint appointments system: the task force continues not to favour a move to the Cambridge system, in which university and college appointments are generally not linked;

(iii) proposing, for further consultation, a system under which the balance of a lecturer's duties can be varied over a career, by establishing a range of template descriptions of a lecturer's responsibilities (all incorporating both undergraduate and graduate teaching) within a single overall form of lecturer contract, together with mechanisms to govern individual decisions on possible rebalancing which take account of the needs of the individual, the college, and the University;

(iv) developing a framework for academic employment for those who have not yet reached the grade of university lecturer (including, but not limited to, those researchers on an academic career trajectory);

(v) fostering the upward harmonisation of housing benefits, in relation to which the task force warmly welcomes the recent proposals for a further and final phase of the College Contributions Scheme;

(vi) developing a framework to consider whether routine administrative burdens on academic staff can be reduced; and

(vii) locating responsibility for detailed arrangements for the management of academic staffing issues locally, at the level of the subject, with both college and University involvement, and within central and divisional frameworks.