Fractional REF advantage?

THE investigation reveals 63 per cent increase in 0.2 deals since October 2011. Paul Jump reports

September 26, 2013

The number of academics recruited on 0.2 contracts during the past two years has risen by nearly two-thirds, although overall levels remain relatively low, a Times Higher Education investigation can reveal.

Academics submitted to the 2014 research excellence framework must be employed on contracts specifying working hours of at least 20 per cent of their full-time equivalents. But observers fear that some universities may be recruiting significant numbers of foreign-based researchers on 0.2 contracts as a cheap and easy way to “game” REF scores.

Using the Freedom of Information Act, THE asked 131 UK universities how many academics they have recruited on 0.2 contracts since 31 October 2011 – two years prior to the census date for the REF.

They were also asked for figures for the previous two-year period as a comparator.

The 105 institutions that provided figures within the statutory time limit have recruited 1,139 academics on 0.2 contracts since October 2011.

This compares with 699 during the previous two years: a rise of 63 per cent.

Only 17 institutions recruited fewer academics on 0.2 contracts during the most recent two-year period. These include Cardiff University, which was criticised by one of its own academics earlier this year for recruiting more than a dozen academics on relatively short-term contracts timed to expire shortly after the REF.

Most academics on 0.2 contracts have been recruited by research-intensive universities, such as King’s College London (which recruited 66, a rise of 69 per cent), the University of Manchester (47, up 68 per cent) and the University of Cambridge (37, up 428 per cent). However, the University of Hertfordshire recruited the highest number, 75, a 29 per cent increase.

A Hertfordshire spokeswoman said that it had seconded health professionals on 0.2 contracts and had also offered the deals to visiting lecturers who have worked more than 110 hours at the institution.

Only 6 per cent of the university’s academics were employed on 0.2 contracts, she added.

To probe the extent to which the recent recruitment was driven by the REF, THE also asked how many 0.2 appointments were temporary and how many would end within a year of the census date.

The institutions responded that 815 – 72 per cent – were temporary and 568 – 50 per cent – will end by 31 October 2014.

Cambridge’s 37 appointments represent 2.3 per cent of its academic staff. A university spokesman said that they included scholars nearing retirement or reducing their hours, although he admitted that the REF had been “a consideration”.

“Cambridge is committed to achieving continuing excellence in research and scholarship, and to ensuring that this contributes to the well-being of society. It is therefore important that the full scope of the university’s research activity is taken into account in any forthcoming assessment,” he said.

According to the Higher Education Statistics Agency, UK universities employed just over 180,000 academics in 2011-12, of whom nearly 65,000 were part-time.

No worries over 0.2 contracts

Graeme Rosenberg, REF manager at the Higher Education Funding Council for England, said he was unconcerned about the figures on 0.2 appointments because they only represented a “small fraction” of the overall academic body and were made for a “variety of reasons”.

Charles Oppenheim retired as professor of information science at Loughborough University in 2009, but has recently been hired on a 0.2 contract by a different university to advise on its research strategy.

The fact he was returnable for the REF was “icing on the cake” for the institution, but it “doesn’t seem to have been its prime motivation in approaching me”, he said.

He also doubted that “game-playing” with 0.2 appointments would be successful because “panels might even be a bit cynical about a particular unit of assessment if it has a number of 0.2s on its books”.

Twenty-one universities did not respond to the FoI request and five declined to release figures, including Imperial College London. It claimed that disclosure “could affect the funding the college receives in the future for its research”, thus prejudicing its commercial interests.

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