Does the Stern review leave early career researchers ‘exposed’?

The proposal to end the portability of research outputs could penalise ECRs, writes Nick Wright

September 7, 2016

In the sunny uplands of the research landscape, early career researchers (ECRs) might be envisaged by some as being awash with high-quality research papers – turning them out at a terrific pace, with the clear expectation that there is more to come.

Such individuals will always have multiple career options. Who wouldn’t want to hire them after all? And the UK research excellence framework (REF) processes barely touch them!

But for the less successful, survival is a more immediate concern – and aspiring academics carry a heavy burden of pressure mixed with anxiety and insecurity of employment. The REF then looms much larger, and the shadow of its scythe grows much more menacing.

To some, the proposed REF rule change in the recent Stern review (that research outputs cannot be transferred between institutions) has darkened that shadow considerably. The proposed change is ostensibly to prevent the poaching of leading professors just before reporting deadlines, but it will also have an effect on other grades of staff.

Imagine the following post-Stern scenario:

A young staff member at a leading university is working on a two-year temporary teaching contract, but with aspirations to move to a research and teaching position. To try to create a chance of getting such a position, they are writing up (in their own time) publications from their recently completed PhD, which was performed at a neighbouring university. Established research and teaching positions are not common and so competition is fierce.

What would be their best strategy post-Stern?

If they publish their papers, then the papers will be eligible for the REF only at their current institution. That institution could use those publications attributed to the author in the next REF, but could also use them anyway – perhaps to enable the submission of a less productive senior professor.

If the ECR doesn’t publish, however, then they will have to make any job applications without proof that they can generate high-quality outputs. Such a position is not likely to be very convincing.

As the REF census date approaches, the chances of piloting the output through to publication recedes, and our aspiring academic risks being caught in the worst of both worlds.

Such a scenario is facing many young academics as the Stern review moves forward. The emerging consensus in the sector is that such circumstances can be best mitigated by allowing only the publications of staff on permanent contracts to be “owned” by their institution. This would certainly help the individual described above, but not others caught in similar dilemmas.

For example, consider a young academic appointed this year to a post but having moved from another university to take it up. They might have thought that their REF submission was going well but now find that any papers published at their previous institution are suddenly not “theirs” any more.

The degree of pressure induced by the proposed rule change will probably depend on their relationship with their line manager, but you can be sure that there will be some anxiety.

There are clearly dozens of possible scenarios, but what emerges is that, in most of them, early career researchers are more vulnerable under the Stern changes. Power passes to management, and that can only lead to undesirable outcomes for ECRs.

Of course, an immediate rebuttal to these concerns is that university managers are more enlightened and will understand the long-term importance of recruiting and nurturing the talent of the future. This will certainly be true in some – perhaps even many – cases. However, in my experience of university management, which stretches back some 15 years, I have seen many examples of bad management.

University top managers are rarely that effective at propagating good practice down into individual academic units, and young staff can be bullied or harassed by departmental heads without much recourse.

The Stern proposal to remove portability of outputs has its merits, but it leaves vulnerable young academics more exposed. University management might support it on the grounds that it will reduce wage inflation caused by poaching, but that should not be a justification to place such a burden on the next generation.

Nick Wright is pro vice-chancellor (research and innovation) at Newcastle University. He is writing in a personal capacity.

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Reader's comments (1)

Typical of a PVC to describe the operation of market forces for talent as 'wage inflation' - like Stern describing it as 'rent-seeking'. There may not be much sympathy for senior staff who want to be paid what the market thinks they are worth rather than what their institution chooses to offer - and who also see this as a way to get better conditions and less bullying treatment from their managers. However, this is an important source of dynamism in a system that otherwise risks being centrally planned to death.

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