Grant income targets for individual academics, which have been blamed for the suicide of Stefan Grimm, a professor at Imperial College London, exist in some form in about one in six UK universities, a survey suggests.
Times Higher Education submitted a Freedom of Information request to all UK universities, asking whether they set such targets. Of the 93 that responded, 11 said that at least some of their departments, faculties, institutes or schools set individual grant-winning goals for at least some individuals. Those are Imperial, Queen Mary University of London, Abertay University, Plymouth University, Robert Gordon University and the universities of Aberdeen, Dundee, East Anglia, Glasgow, Greenwich and Leeds.
However, Aberdeen said that its “expectations” were only intended to inform conversations about “which aspects (if any) of an individual’s career might need more attention or support to develop”; Glasgow said that it only used grant income targets – among other metrics – in promotion criteria for senior lecturers and above; Plymouth and East Anglia said that they only “encouraged” academics to bring in the amounts specified; and Greenwich, Abertay, Robert Gordon, Dundee and Leeds said that targets were set only on a case-by-case basis.
Another five institutions – the universities of Surrey, Bath, Ulster, Bradford and Warwick – claimed that the requested information was commercially sensitive. But, as THE reported last year, principal investigators in Warwick Medical School and its School of Life Sciences were identified for potential redundancy if their grant income fell below a certain threshold (for medics who are principal investigators, an average of £90,000 over four years). If all five institutions have targets, that would put the total that do have them up to 16, or 17 per cent of the total. Another 12 institutions said that they set grant income targets at institutional, faculty or departmental level, making a total of 28 universities – 30 per cent of the total – that have targets of some sort.
Review at Imperial
Grant income targets came under scrutiny when it was revealed that Professor Grimm, a professor of toxicology at Imperial who took his own life in September last year, had been struggling to secure the amount specified for an Imperial professor.
A spokeswoman for Imperial said that a team led by Stephen Richardson, associate provost for institutional affairs, is reviewing its “application and consistency of approach in the use of performance metrics”, and is expected to submit its recommendations to “a senior group” led by James Stirling, Imperial’s provost, this summer.
‘A target of £35K made me panic’
Imperial generally expects income from each academic’s teaching and research to “cover the costs of their employment”. Some departments impose “minimum performance standards” that “may include a general statement of the amount of income that a researcher…might normally be expected to generate, but with the proviso that such amounts are a guideline only and that precise amounts will vary according to an individual’s circumstances”. Those “at risk” of not meeting the standards “may be set objectives…including for grant income”.
Queen Mary and King’s College London have both run into controversy in recent years for using metrics, including grant income, to select academics for redundancy. King’s did not answer THE’s question in its FoI response.
Dorothy Bishop, professor of developmental neuropsychology at the University of Oxford, said that grant income targets – especially those deemed “typical” rather than minimum standards – discriminated against inexpensive research, incentivised misconduct and encouraged “overstretched” staff to sign up to more projects than they could properly oversee or write up.
Jenny Pickerill, professor of environmental geography at the University of Sheffield, said that, in her experience, “aspirational targets” at departmental level or higher were “productive in signalling…the need to secure external funding”. But individual targets were less sensible.
“I was once set a target of securing £35,000 in a year. In a panic, I submitted 12 applications and pieced together several small grants to reach the goal. But I published little and ended up with an eclectic set of research projects,” she said.
“Grant success is not achieved by working harder, or even necessarily by submitting more applications, and internal peer review has not particularly helped. To require staff to submit grants is one thing: to hold them to targets of securing funds is to reward the lucky and unproductively pressure the rest.”
From liquid lunches to performance metrics: academics have a ‘huge bond of shared obligations’
Performance criteria are crucial to preserving the future of academic life in challenging times, according to a vice-chancellor who has launched a new scheme in Australia.
But Warren Bebbington, head of the University of Adelaide, stressed that the “Adelaide Academic” project was intended to specify “reasonable minimum” rather than “aspirational” standards, and most Adelaide academics would perform “well in advance” of them.
The role statements, announced on 29 May, include 12 criteria relating to teaching and research that are gradated according to seniority.
There are both quantity and quality measures, tailored for each faculty. For example, annual research quantity criteria for a medical professor include three or four published papers and two research grants won – including one as chief applicant. Teaching output measures include undergraduate teaching load and number of doctoral students supervised.
Quality criteria include, for research, the number of the most competitive grants won and the number of citations garnered, and, for teaching, student evaluation scores and doctoral completions.
Professor Bebbington said that Adelaide had come up with the criteria independently, after discovering that 89 per cent of its deans and heads of department could think of someone in their school who “really [isn’t] doing even the minimum”.
However, he said that he was confident no academic would feel under the sort of pressure that contributed to the death of Imperial College London’s Stefan Grimm last year. Academics at Adelaide will be permitted to select – in consultation with their head of department – just four of the 12 criteria to be assessed on (including at least one research quality and one teaching quality measure).
“There is a lot of flexibility,” Professor Bebbington said, adding that if a mid-year review indicated that an academic was going to miss an agreed standard they would be “given time and support to get things right”. However, he said, “if there still isn’t any improvement, then we have to start thinking about whether they belong with us”.
It is hoped that about 100 academics with substandard research but strong teaching will switch to teaching-only positions, which Adelaide has not previously offered.
Professor Bebbington said that it was rare for universities to tackle productivity among academics, as opposed to support staff, but he said that it had become unavoidable. “I have been an academic for 35 years and I remember the two-hour alcoholic lunches...but things have changed,” he said.
“There is such financial pressure on us all now, not to mention other models of delivering advanced education, such as online. Those of us who want to preserve academic life and what it means have to realise there is a huge bond of shared obligations, and if there are people who aren’t contributing, it is putting a burden on others.”