Rancour over the extent to which academics are obliged to bring in research grant income looks set to spark industrial action at the University of Birmingham.
Birmingham is among the UK universities that told Times Higher Education in a recent freedom of information request that they do not impose grant income targets on individual academics.
However, in a “position statement” sent earlier this year to the University and College Union, Birmingham says that although grant capture is not mentioned specifically in academic contracts, it may be among the “local or research area specific norms” and “sector-wide standards” that “bolster” the core academic duty to contribute to “advancement and diffusion of knowledge through…advanced study and original research”.
Because research in many disciplines is too expensive to conduct without external grants, academics may “be unable to deliver” on their “contractual obligation” without them.
Winning grants is also “a measure of performance in itself”, the statement continues, although “not all applications will be funded and we are committed to working with staff whose applications are unfunded to help them to be successful next time”.
UCU members responded angrily to the statement. Many regarded it as a unilateral change to their contracts, pointing out that grants are not always necessary for research and that current research council success rates are low.
However, Adam Tickell, Birmingham’s provost and vice-principal, told the union that the comments “do not persuade me that our policy needs revision” and that “this is not a matter for negotiation”.
The union called an indicative ballot asking members whether they would strike over “the imposition of grant capture as a generic duty and disciplinary necessity”, as well as over other issues related to performance management and a redundancy programme. About 80 per cent of respondents said that they would, according to results of the ballot received last month.
Roland Brandstaetter, president of Birmingham UCU, said that a formal ballot for industrial action would be held in September if progress is not made, although strikes will “always be our absolutely last resort”.
Grant capture targets were brought into focus last year by the suicide of Stefan Grimm, a professor at Imperial College London who was told that he was not bringing in enough grant income. Such targets were recently adopted by Queen’s University Belfast, and the University of Bristol is facing an employment tribunal challenge from an academic who claims that she was sacked for failings in grant capture.
Dr Brandstaetter said: “Grant capture as a contractual duty and disciplinary necessity is about to become one of the big issues in higher education. We were all hoping that universities would change strategy, and start thinking, after the tragic death of Stefan Grimm, but it seems things are getting worse.”
In a statement, Birmingham says that tuition fees “should be used to deliver an excellent education to our students” rather than to subsidise research. “In common with other leading research universities, where academics need external funding…the university expects, over a period of time, academics to secure [it]”.
The university says that its redundancy programme is necessary to “reduce our activity in research areas that have not been productive or where we don’t have a critical mass”, but it intends to “continue to engage in…discussions [with the UCU] in a constructive manner”. A further meeting is planned with the union to discuss performance management and disciplinary procedures.