Strike action over ‘unrealistic’ REF targets looms at Liverpool

Russell Group university is on course for UK’s first industrial action linked to 2021 research excellence framework, says union

March 12, 2019
Source: Getty

Staff at a Russell Group university may soon strike over what union activists have called “unrealistic” new research targets that, they claim, will lead to job losses.

The University of Liverpool’s University and College Union opened a ballot on industrial action on 4 March over academic performance management linked to the 2021 research excellence framework.

The union claimed that Liverpool recently raised the bar for expected research performance to “unreasonable” levels that will in effect force some early career staff out of the university. It told Times Higher Education that several junior academics have been informed that they will not pass their probation unless they publish, every 18 months on average, a paper that is judged in internal assessments to be likely to be scored as “internationally excellent”, equivalent to a 3* rating in the REF.

That level is far in excess of what is demanded by the REF, which requires at least one output dating between 2014 and August 2020 to be submitted per research-active staff member, the union said.

The UCU branch has also cited concerns over possible moves to include student feedback in staff evaluation procedures and a new timetable policy, which it claims cuts research time, in its decision to ballot for strike action.

“The bar, in terms of research expectations, continues to feel extremely high,” a UCU branch spokesman told THE, adding that academics were angry about the “lack of fairness and transparency” over how research outputs would be evaluated.

He added that the union was confident that UCU members would back the action, with 63 per cent of voters in an indicative ballot held earlier this year supporting strikes.

The union, the spokesman continued, would “absolutely smash” the 50 per cent turnout threshold that recently prevented the UCU from striking over this year’s national pay offer, given that 58 per cent of branch members had voted in the indicative ballot.

“These are unreasonable expectations, and our members are fully prepared to take action to protect jobs,” he said, adding that negotiations with the university had broken down over its failure to modify its internal assessment policies.

A Liverpool spokeswoman said that it was “disappointing that UCU has decided to step away from the agreed disputes process, at a time when good progress continues to be made and a resolution is thought to be in sight, to ballot for industrial action”.

The university, which insists that its approach to performance management was agreed formally with the UCU in June 2013 and subsequently endorsed by its senate in 2016, added that it had “offered a significant number of proposals addressing UCU’s concerns” at a meeting in early February and had “agreed to have a further meeting to clarify only three of these points” as part of a dispute procedure agreed with the union.

Under the rules for the 2021 REF, universities will be able to submit research conducted by academics who they had subsequently made redundant.

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Reader's comments (4)

So, as the final sentence of this article reveals, REF has this covered and shown greedy managerialist league table obsessed bonus chasing VCs and their "only following orders" sociopathic middle management toadies the way out. Simply make staff redundant. This is already happening now in the university sector. George Orwell's pigs have taken over everything in the university sector.
These one-size-fits-all performance targets and expectations do not take into account the significant variations between disciplines and even subject areas within a discipline in terms of publishing practices (and opportunities). In my subject area, for example, it is now almost impossible to get published in any of the (American) top journals (4*) without a co-author based in the US and using quantitative methods and a very narrow paradigm. This is important because within my discipline the assessment of individual "outputs" is explicitly or implicitly gauged from journal rankings/lists despite the REF guidelines suggesting that a work should be judged on its merit alone. Further, it can take up to two years or more to get through the review process of top journals and even the middling ones (not counting the time needed for actually carrying out research and drafting and polishing a paper before submission). This is particularly challenging for ECRs without the "pipeline" of papers already established. With rejection rates of above 95% there is no guarantee for a paper being eventually published even after the review. A parallel submission of the same paper to several journals is not good practice and is not a feasible strategy to speed up the process. The naivety of the assembly line model of research that underpins such performance targets shows that the people devising them are not very conversant about the vagaries and pitfalls of research, writing and publishing. Too much of this is dominated by the Lab sciences and their mode of inquiry really (and I doubt it applies even there) without due consideration for other fields. Of course, the corporate bean-counters and metrics-monkeys who run academia now do not really care about such subtleties. They rejoice in having been provided with yet another stick with which they can whack academics and which allows them to "cut the dead wood" who do not produce papers (which they usually mistake for research or scholarship) like sausages in a sausage factory (whatever the REF guidelines say or what its intentions are).
Is this condition explicitly stated in their contract of appointment? If not, is it a breach of contract (regardless of any wishy-washy wording)?
HR practice in UK HE - aided by shady employment lawyers - does not really care much about individual's contracts or due process. Management by implicit threats and back door dealing and handling of issues is rife. They know that most staff do not dare to jeopardise their career prospects - however elusive such prospects might be - or have the independent means to see any grievance through to Employment Tribunal stage. Even then, academia is very tribal and an ET is usually (considered as) career suicide. Especially ECRs are in a very vulnerable position unimaginable in most other professional sectors. Before I moved from industry into academia I did not believe such almost feudal conduct possible in this day and age really.


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