Axe threat outrages Notts staff

April 25, 1997

SENIOR academics at the University of Nottingham have spoken out for the first time against the regime which is seeking to identify and then axe 50 alleged under- performers by September.

A group in receipt of a letter from the university personnel department has told The THES of its outrage and fears that the policy will damage undergraduate courses. John Ferris, lecturer in social policy and administration, compared the redundancy procedures to a court martial. "The university has held a gun to our heads and, in my opinion, if there has been any under-performance at Nottingham it is managerial not academic," he said.

The letters warn individuals that they might fall within the pool for redundancies due to poor research performance and asks them to consider voluntary retirement or severance. Compulsory redundancies would follow should the numbers fall short. Some recipients, including Mr Ferris, are threatening legal action.

He claims the university could be guilty of defamation of character through its policy which has rejected the research plans of many loyal long-serving members of staff. These individuals, many of whom are talented teachers, face bleak prospects because the university has made public that the grounds for redundancy are under-performance.

Another in the firing line is 57-year-old director of studies George Parr who has worked at the university for more than 30 years. "Until I received my letter the idea of voluntary retirement was not unappealing," Dr Parr said. "But to be branded an under-performer when I am just the opposite is unacceptable. I have lost my long-held trust in the university and am forced into a position of having to defend myself against allegations which should never have been made."

After receiving promotion two years ago on the basis of his outstanding teaching, Dr Parr is at a loss to explain the university's treatment of him. His colleagues reckon he is the best teacher in the department of civil engineering. "I simply want to know how this deal was worked out so I can clear my reputation," he said. "I feel very defiant."

The Association of University Teachers is backing the lecturers and said it had serious concerns about the university's conduct.

All academic staff were asked to submit research plans to their heads of departments earlier this year detailing how they proposed to achieve a grade 4 or above at the next research assessment exercise, expected in April 2000. It made clear that shedding under-performers was the key to success in research assessment since there had been too many grade 3s this time round. A deficit of Pounds 2.4 million also needed to be tackled.

Mr Ferris, who is 59, said there had never been any explanation of the university's criteria for judging potential grade 4 research. His own research plan had been criticised as too ambitious. "They are coercing me to take voluntary retirement." Voluntary retirement would net him a Pounds 34,000 lump sum plus a pension of Pounds 11,000, he said. If he was made redundant as an under-performer he said he would get Pounds 5,000.

Mr Ferris said he had been proud to prioritise teaching above research and had thought the university supported him. There are believed to be six targeted academics in the school of social studies, which Mr Ferris said was bad news for students. "We simply won't be able to offer the courses students have signed up for," he said. Academics were paying the price for poor management which emerged in 1994 in an internal review which expressed "serious concern" about some aspects of the management of the school.

Another targeted senior lecturer, who has worked at Nottingham for more than 30 years and asked to remain anonymous, told of his disillusionment. "I feel I am being punished because my research is no longer fashionable," he said. "The voluntary terms are not attractive and I feel very disappointed by my treatment."

Another in his late 40s stressed that he had come from industry with no research experience and had never been given any encouragement by the university to build up his research. Now he is to lose his job because his research is not up to scratch. "I have put in an average 60 hours per week over the years and feel very bitter at having my career severed at this point. My prospects for future employment are very bleak."

The university said research plans would be assessed by heads of departments, the dean and pro vice chancellor, and all staff had an opportunity to discuss their case. The reports on individual performance would be made available and direct representations could be made by academics to the redundancy committee. Council would then examine any cases recommended for redundancy and could refer them back to the committee if necessary.

In the event of any compulsory redundancies, which it hoped to avoid, the university stressed that academics had the right to appeal to an independent person.

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