Professors at a Russell Group university fear they could lose their jobs if they fail to meet new “unreasonable and crude” grant income targets.
Times Higher Education revealed last month that grant-winning goals, which were linked to the suicide of Stefan Grimm, a professor at Imperial College London, existed in some form at about one in six UK higher education institutions.
In its March response to the THE freedom of information request, Queen’s University Belfast said that it did not set targets for individual academics. Since then, however, grant income targets have been introduced for most academic posts across the institution’s three faculties, THE has learned.
One Queen’s professor said that there was “growing disquiet” about the introduction of the targets, particularly since this coincided with the commencement of a professoriate salary review scheme that lists a “sustained record of developing and securing peer-reviewed external research funding” among criteria.
One explanatory note to the review, seen by THE, says that where it is “clear that a member of the professoriate is not performing to the appropriate level…it is expected that the capability procedure will be applied”. This can ultimately lead to dismissal. Alternatively, any cost of living pay award could be withheld.
The levels that the income targets have been set at are also thought to be causing concern among academics.
A professor in the School of Biological Sciences, for example, is expected to bring in an average of £150,000 annually, with some flexibility for different research areas. This figure is thought to rise towards £200,000 for similar positions in the School of Medicine, Dentistry and Biomedical Sciences.
Many of the targets are benchmarked against average performance by discipline at other Russell Group universities.
Alan Harpur, president of the University and College Union branch at Queen’s, said the union had argued that failure to meet income targets should not be sufficient reason for inclusion in the capability procedure.
“There is now widespread anxiety among staff generally, for they feel they are being asked to meet unrealistic grant income targets and then threatened with a capability procedure when they do not achieve them,” Mr Harpur said.
“There seems to be little recognition that this strategy is likely to produce fear, demoralisation and sleepless nights among academic staff.”
A professor, who asked to remain anonymous, said that morale was already low as a result of the announcement that Queen’s will axe 236 jobs by December, with compulsory redundancies a possibility if voluntary reductions cannot be made – and that the “crude management approach” on grant income only exacerbated the situation.
“Research success is best served in a collegial environment with colleagues collaborating and encouraging each other,” the professor said.
“Setting unreasonable and crude income targets that individuals must meet creates an atmosphere of competition and fear that will be counterproductive and very difficult to overcome.”
A Queen’s spokesman said that its academic standards were “developed by the academic community”, and that the recent review had been led by faculty deans in consultation with heads of school.
“As part of the review, schools benchmarked performance against suitable comparator groups, with this benchmarking data used to inform final agreed standards,” the spokesman said, adding that the standards were endorsed by the university senate on 14 April.