PFNA

Everyone agrees it is vital, valid and desirable that we look in detail at the kinds of teaching and learning we offer on our programmes, especially given the imminent challenges posed by the Teaching Excellence Framework. Current and future students benefit when we do, and so do we, as we get together to have meaningful discussions about how refresh, revise and rethink what it is that makes what we offer so special and valuable. In every discussion UCU have had with university management and HR about this, we have made this very plain. Yet what UCU have also made plain is that unless processes to help us refresh, revise and rethink are workloaded properly, scheduled sensibly, and designed inclusively, there will be problems, for individual staff and for the university as a whole. In fact, without proper workloading, sensible schedules, and inclusive design, PFNA will be counterproductive. Is this the situation we are in now?

 

Yes, the PFNA documentation changed as a result of discussions in faculties, through discussions between UCU and the university Executive and HR, and through bodies like Academic Board. All such alterations are to be welcomed, and evince that organisational change can sometimes, fortunately, involve listening to staff.

But the reality now is that our programmes, our work and livelihoods, are being re-validated without sufficient time for the scrutiny normally afforded validation events: assessors are not able to do what needs to be done, and the people submitting documentation are not able to do so in ways they would like. We have been given less time to complete the thinking through and documentation (maybe six months?) than it took to devise the process and the paperwork (maybe eighteen months?). There is little confidence or guarantee that this process will make our programmes as responsive and flexible as they need to be to respond to the challenges we face recruiting students. If anything, we risk being locked into structures that militate against productive and creative change. Moreover, many aspects of the process remain opaque and arbitrary, without a clearly communicated rationale. Why can a module only have five learning outcomes? Why are there only four aspects of research-rich learning, and why is a module only supposed to emphasise one? Why have forms changed during the process? Why was it not possible to have more staff involvement in designing the criteria and 'pillars'? If there had been, perhaps present concerns would have been mitigated.

Despite this, across the university, staff have been working exceptionally hard, to very tight deadlines, to make sure their programmes and the documents representing them do justice to what they and their colleagues do. And why? Because most academics care deeply about what they do, and because these documents represent what we do and who we are: they tell the stories of our modules, courses and disciplines; they make those stories appealing and engaging; and they help our students see how they are part of those stories.

Yet all this has been happening, for the most part, with no additional workloading. If you are a Programme Director, Programme Leader, or module leader, you will have been putting your PFNA documents together while still doing all the same tasks and duties you normally do, with no extra allowance. Let's say you spend an afternoon a week on PFNA matters – that's about 5 hours devoted to attending meetings, filling out paperwork, checking other people's paperwork, liaising with colleagues, students or employers. Let's say we work about 40 weeks a year. That means we're spending 200 hours each on PFNA. That is 200 hours you are not doing what you are workloaded for – your normal administrative, teaching and research and scholarship. That is 200 hours you won't get back, because you're not workloaded for it. That is, in fact, 200 hours free labour. It has been said that the university only workloads activities it thinks are worthwhile. Does this mean PFNA doesn't matter?

Clearly, labour isn't free, and PFNA does matter, which means everyone is feeling the strain. How many of us have been in public or private meetings of late when tempers have run high or when colleagues have broken down in tears of frustration? How many of us have resorted to working late into the night, or at weekends, to our own detriment, and the detriment of our friends and family, because we cannot fit into our normal working week what PFNA requires us to do? Is this how we should be working?

No. So what can we do? First, work to ensure that if something like PFNA comes round again, however valid the aims, we are prepared to scrutinise and if necessary challenge how it is implemented. Second, remind ourselves and everyone involved in PFNA at all levels – especially those leading on this in faculties – that the university has a choice. We can work to meet demanding deadlines but in the discomfiting knowledge that the documents we
submit will probably be inaccurate, or inconsistent, or incomplete, and require further work which we have just deferred to after any scrutiny event. Or we can revise deadlines, giving staff more time to complete the documentation and be able to use the process to do what it is supposed to do.

If we do not engage with PFNA our programmes will suffer, even more than they will suffer through working with its currently flawed design. But if we engage, how much do we suffer?

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