UCU uncovers high price of failure to hit REF targets

More than 10 per cent of academics at eight UK universities have been told that failure to meet their institution’s expectations on producing work for the research excellence framework will lead to redundancy, according to a survey by the University and College Union.

In recent weeks, Times Higher Education has highlighted several examples of what critics have described as draconian treatment of non-submitted academics, but the UCU survey, carried out in June, suggests that policies vary widely.

Just over 4 per cent of nearly 7,500 respondents report having been informed by a manager or senior colleague that failure to meet REF expectations will result in redundancy. At Middlesex University, however, 29 per cent of respondents have received such messages.

Other institutions with high percentages include the University of Leicester (24 per cent of respondents), City University London (21 per cent), Queen’s University Belfast (18 per cent) and the universities of Birmingham (13 per cent), Sussex, Warwick and Cardiff (11 per cent each).

A Middlesex spokesman said that although the institution “places substantial new focus” on research, no compulsory redundancies had been threatened.

Meanwhile, 17 per cent of respondents at the University of Warwick say they have been told to expect disciplinary procedures for non-submission, compared with 2 per cent of all respondents.
A Warwick spokesman denied that its performance management procedures were linked to the REF.

At the University of Essex, 29 per cent of academics report having been told to expect denial of promotion, 20 per cent to expect transfer to inferior terms and conditions, and 59 per cent to expect to be moved to teaching-focused contracts. Sector averages for these threats are 10, 4 and 12 per cent, respectively.

An Essex spokesman said that it had “clear targets for all staff with research in their contracts to be submitted to the REF”, with 60 per cent of all academics to be submitted. But since “other factors” affected who were submitted, non-submission was not seen “in itself” as a “performance issue”.

He added that promotions were made in accordance with a strict set of clearly stated criteria. A small number of academics had moved on to teaching-only contracts, but Essex’s priority was to help research staff maximise their potential.

At the University of East Anglia, 36 per cent of academics have been told to expect “capability procedures” to address underperformance, compared with a sector average of 4 per cent.

A UEA spokesman said that non-submitted staff were being “mentored to help them progress their research careers”, while the institution had also “explored in a positive way the opportunity for a small number of staff” to take up teaching-focused roles, which enjoyed “parity of esteem” with research roles.

Several of the universities also said that the survey’s relatively small sample sizes – typically less than 100 responses for each institution – were not representative.

But Stefano Fella, national industrial relations official at the UCU, insisted that they were “reasonable”, with the results demonstrating “a significant level of discontent even where respondents said they were going to be included in the REF”.

Across the sector, 53 per cent of respondents fear losing their jobs if they fail to meet REF criteria. Some 61 per cent expect to be submitted and 21 per cent do not, a figure roughly evenly split between those who do not meet quality criteria and those who do not fit into institutional submission strategies.

Only 35 per cent of respondents agree that their institution’s selection procedures are transparent. Six per cent indicate that selections are made by senior managers without any input from peer review.
Meanwhile, nearly 25 per cent of respondents – and just under 30 per cent of women – say they undertake more than half of their work on REF outputs outside “reasonable” hours.

Some 34 per cent (39 per cent of women) say that meeting REF expectations has had a negative impact on their health.

Mr Fella said the survey confirmed what the UCU had been hearing from members about the impact the REF was having on their lives.

“Universities should acknowledge the REF is a bit of a game they play to maximise their reputation and funding, and separate it from treatment and assessment of staff,” he said.

From: http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk