In a recent post, we tackled the myth that bullying is necessary to drive academic staff performance. In fact, the data suggest the exact opposite. Institutions with a historical record of bullying performed more poorly in the 2021 Research Excellence Framework (REF) exercise. Those with good management cultures performed much better.
Inevitably, one wonders why this is the case, and there are a wide range of potential explanations. One idea we briefly considered is whether research-performing academics have better options to leave toxic work environments and land a job elsewhere, whereas lower performance staff are more likely to remain stuck in place. This results in a vicious circle, whereby bullying behaviour becomes even more deeply entrenched, due to the powerlessness of remaining faculty to either oppose or escape it. And obviously, it also leaves behind departments that are deprived of top-performing research staff.
To explore that idea further, we have looked not just at average research quality, but also at the proportion of research active staff (the rate of eligible staff members actually reporting to REF). And here the relationship seems even clearer. Institutions with a record of staff bullying are apparently less able to hire and retain staff who deliver concrete research outputs, and have a higher ratio of research-idle faculty.
Naturally, this doesn’t prove a direct causal link, and even less a specific mechanism to connect the two. It is, however, obviously inconsistent with the idea that bullying somehow positively contributes to academic excellence. For as a simple descriptive fact, bullying institutions perform poorly on research – and across multiple measures.
Still, perhaps bullying institutions manage to compensate through the quality of their teaching? After all, with less research active staff, perhaps those remaining have more time to aid and assist their students?
Again the evidence suggests a very clear – no.
Higher rates of staff bullying are associated with higher student dropout rates, as shown in the figure below. Not only do toxic work cultures drive out top researchers, but apparently drive out their students too.
Obviously, many other factors affect student attrition, including the academic commitment of incoming cohorts, the under-resourcing of teaching, and student background. However, this bullying-attrition relationship persists (indeed, strengthens) even after controlling for i) university entry standards (the average UCAS score of incoming students), ii) facilities spending per student, iii) the student-staff ratio, and iv) the ratio of international to domestic students. In short, there appears something about having a toxic staff working environment that is linked to the loss of students, over and above the other plausible contributors.