Academics fight Birmingham’s plan to cut time for research

College of Arts and Law tells scholars to spend more time on grant applications as quality-related funding dwindles

March 19, 2019
Amber Scott as Cinderella on midnight as The Australian Ballet Company present Alexei Ratmansky's Cinderella at The Coliseum Theatre on July 20, 2016 in London, England.
Source: Getty
Taking steps: ‘for too long education has played Cinderella, but…must [now] receive just as much attention as research, and arguably more’

Plans by a Russell Group institution to cut the basic amount of time that academics spend on “unfunded research” have been branded a “betrayal” of the research-intensive university ideal.

Under proposals circulated at the University of Birmingham, academics in its College of Arts and Law would see the time allocated to research reduced from a third to a quarter as part of potential changes to workload models from September.

Meanwhile, the college would increase time allocations for grant submission and other research-related activities, such as editing journals, as it aims to double its annual grant awards by 2026.

Other alternative proposals under consideration include making study leave and promotion dependent on grant acquisition.

In a letter to staff, the college’s head Michael Whitby explains that “no other Russell Group institution is taking such steps”, but “inaction…is not an option for us” as “significant recruitment of new staff now needs to be balanced by commensurate increases in income”.

“We urgently need to increase our grant income and reflect how we manage the growing level of ‘unfunded’ research time,” says Professor Whitby, a pro vice-chancellor for learning and teaching.

He highlights the impact of the teaching excellence framework as a reason for the proposed change, stating that “for too long education has played Cinderella, but…must [now] receive just as much attention as research, and arguably more”.

Professor Whitby also observes that, given that just 6 per cent of the college’s income came from quality-related (QR) research funding and that the Office for Students was making “increasingly loud noises about cross-subsidies”, it was “difficult to see how the current level of cross-subsidy from education to facilitate unfunded research can be sustained”.

However, a spokesman for Birmingham’s University and College Union branch said that the plan to remove a quarter of the research time available to staff represented an attack on the “three-legged model” of academia, in which lecturers split their time equally between teaching, research and administration.

“It’s a blow to the cornerstone of the research-intensive university,” he said, adding that staff “already struggle to keep our teaching and admin workload down to two-thirds of our working time, and most of us work well over our paid hours in order to keep up”.

Many academics feared that the plans would “ultimately lead to a two-stream system in which only some academics are given time to do research”, he continued.

“How can we continue to call ourselves a research-intensive university if this is our strategic direction of travel?” he asked, calling the plans a “betrayal of the ambitions of a research-led institution”.

However, Professor Whitby’s letter suggests that established workload allocations in Russell Group universities were increasingly untenable given the erosion of QR funding in recent years.

The college now receives QR funding for each research-active colleague that covers “about 17 per cent of the full employment costs of a lecturer at the bottom of the scale”, the letter says. In 2010, the equivalent salary coverage was 26 per cent.

A Birmingham spokesman said that the university aimed “to support a vibrant research culture within the College of Arts and Law but to do that in a context of a continuing decline in QR allocations we need to ensure that a greater proportion of research activity is supported by grants”.

“The current proposals, which are still subject to discussion and change, will still ensure that, once a sabbatical term of leave is factored in, over one-third of time remains allocated to research, with more of this funded by the university than by QR,” he said.

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (4)

Why doesn't the VC go out and raise some money and stop expecting academics to fund the university themselves?
"Professor Whitby also observes that, given that just 6 per cent of the college’s income came from quality-related (QR) research funding" Yes, but that 6% is "top-quality money": it doesn't have to get spent on postdocs, labs etc. associated with individual projects. Also, there's probably scope to raise that QR income, maybe it's low because they submitted weak papers to the last REF.
I would imagine that other universities will already be considering this. Nevertheless what these proposals forward is a *further* reduction of research time that has long been in motion (very few academics, particularly those in T&R contracts will enjoy anything close to the headline WAM figure anyway). I think most of us have gone along with the WAM fiction, recognising that most other tasks largely fill the year - but understanding that changes to WAM away from existing fiction will completely designate research as a holiday and weekend activity (I.e. the holidays and weekends where academics not dealing with overflows of other non-research related work).
Another week, another attack on academics by arrogant, out-of-touch, money-obsessed educrats who view universities as a revenue-maximising business, rather than a public serviced devoted to teaching and research. The idea that promotion should be dependent on 'grant capture' is obscene (although it has always been a criteria, this makes it explicit). Incidentally, if academic staff do successfully obtain a grant to buy themselves out of teaching, how will this improve the University's NSS and TEF rankings? This is just more of the nonsense-on-stilts that idiotic megalomaniac university managers keep creating.

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