Appraisal system will restrict freedom, scholars say

Academics fight proposals to align individuals’ research goals with managers’ objectives. Hannah Fearn reports

January 25, 2010

Academics at Queen’s University Belfast are resisting plans for a new staff appraisal system because they fear that it will undermine their academic freedom.

The proposals say that all academic research projects must be aligned with the stated goals of the department or school in which they are undertaken.

Academics fear that a focus on the most interesting or relevant issues in their discipline will be superseded by projects that fit with their school’s overarching objectives.

In a statement circulated to union members at the university, the University and College Union says that regardless of the financial and reputational benefits of building a critical mass of research in one area, the proposals pose a major threat to academics’ work. “Attempts to manage research from on high pose a variety of threats to academic freedom,” the statement says.

The union claims that the new regime has already forced academics in the School of Medicine, Dentistry and Biomedical Sciences to reorient their research.

“Decisions to concentrate research have killed off the research careers of some highly respected academics,” its statement says.

Mark Gardiner, senior lecturer in medieval archaeology, said the proposals were likely to “close the doors” on certain areas of study and to narrow fields of research.

“It is impossible and utterly unrealistic for the heads of schools to know all the frontiers of research in the disciplines that they cover.

“I would not expect my head of school, who is a palaeo-ecologist, to know the state of research and to be able to predict the future areas of breakthrough in my field, the late medieval archaeology of north-western Europe, any more than I do in his,” he said.

Renee Prendergast, president of the Queen’s UCU branch, said the current appraisal system allowed staff to agree research objectives that accommodated both the wider goals of the university and researchers’ own views of what is important.

“We don’t see why the university should want to change this,” she said. “People will not be motivated to fulfil targets that are imposed on them from on high… Universities will make big mistakes if they try to copy standard corporate techniques.”

A spokeswoman for Queen’s said the university was committed to academic freedom.

“The proposed changes to the appraisal process do not threaten this principle in any way,” she said.

“One of the key principles of the appraisal is that it supports academics by ensuring that their individual objectives are in line with the academic plans developed by them and their colleagues, working together in schools.”

hannah.fearn@tsleducation.com

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