Cardiff University is “in no way unusual” in hiring more than a dozen academics on relatively short-term contracts timed to expire shortly after the research excellence framework census date, an academic has claimed.
The positions are mentioned in documents provided to trade unions ahead of redundancy consultations for positions terminating between November 2013 and January 2014.
The REF census date is 31 October 2013.
The documents highlight 13 posts in which the “relevant factor” for redundancy relates to the REF. One entry states, for instance, that the postholder has been hired “to produce research outputs that will enhance the contribution to the School’s REF submission”.
All the posts are senior-level appointments and many are part-time, typically a fifth of full-time contracts (the minimum required for the REF). The majority of the appointments, which are spread across the university, are for two years or fewer, with one lasting around nine-tenths of a year.
The Cardiff academic who shared the information with Times Higher Education, who did not want to be named, admitted that there might be “legitimate reasons” for the appointments, but believed their timing amounted to REF “game-playing”.
“The cost to the university is limited because the post is part-time and fixed term, but the resulting profile is clearly not an accurate reflection of the research environment or output capacity of the university, because the actual research may have been conducted [elsewhere]…and also because the posts terminate as soon as the outputs have been counted in the REF,” the academic said.
A spokeswoman for Cardiff said that most of the posts were for retiring academics who had agreed to short-term extensions “to continue their research and teaching”. The extensions allowed – in line with the academics’ wishes – “high-quality research” conducted by them at Cardiff to “be returned for the REF”.
Some of the other academics in question had moved to different universities, she said, but “wanted to maintain their connection with Cardiff and agreed short-term, part-time contracts on a similar basis”. The spokeswoman added: “In all these cases, Cardiff is entirely within the REF guidelines on academics eligible for return.”
The Cardiff academic did not believe that the institution’s approach was unusual, a view echoed by another source, who told THE of rumours that several economics departments across the UK were planning to recruit US-based scholars for as little as two weeks around the REF census date.
“The main point is that it illustrates a problem with the REF process and undermines its credibility. It is hard to see how this farce is in the public interest,” the Cardiff academic said.
This view was endorsed by Gill Evans, emeritus professor of medieval theology and intellectual history at the University of Cambridge. She said the “loophole” in the rules was greatly to the advantage of Cambridge and the University of Oxford, both in areas “crammed with senior scholars who are retired or are from overseas and choose to live locally”.
But Graeme Rosenberg, REF manager at the Higher Education Funding Council for England, said that stories of institutions bringing in staff on short-term contracts had emerged during every edition of the old research assessment exercise.
“However, the numbers have proved to be small, and we therefore did not consider it necessary to change the rules to prevent this,” he said.
One-fifth column: but 100% Swansea for assessment purposes
Swansea University has said it will consider entering the work of 18 “distinguished research professors” into the research excellence framework even though none of them is based at the institution and some spend only a fifth of their time working for it.
A spokesman for the university said that the “REF profile” of the professors, who joined in February, was a “consideration” in their appointment, as it was with any new member of staff.
He confirmed that Swansea would consider entering research published by the professors before they had any connection with the university.
The scholars, who hail from the US, Australia and continental Europe as well as the UK, have “global reputations”, according to Swansea’s website.
“The appointments are spread across all six academic Colleges and will further strengthen our reputation for research excellence as we seek to fulfil our ambition of becoming one of the world’s top 200 universities by 2020,” it says.
In a press release issued in mid-June, Swansea says that the professors will spend “the equivalent of a fifth of their time” working for the institution.
But the spokesman said that not all were on 0.2 full-time equivalent contracts, although he did not provide further details or reveal how much had been spent on them in time for Times Higher Education’s deadline.
When the professors were appointed, a press release said they would “spend a proportion of their time working with colleagues in Swansea to build and to strengthen global research collaborations and to enhance the vitality and sustainability of our research environment”.
A 0.2 contract is the minimum required for an academic to be entered into the REF.
The appointees include Theresa Fossum, professor of veterinary surgery at Texas A Mark Bevir, professor of political science at the University of California, Berkeley; and Maud Ellmann, professor of the development of the novel at the University of Chicago.