Universities appear to have successfully used high salaries to lure top academics in order to score better in the 2014 research excellence framework, according to an analysis of the impact of the REF on researchers’ wages.
A 10 per cent increase in the average salary at a university department was associated with a 5 per cent increase in funding based on the results of the REF, according to the study.
Co-author Gianni De Fraja, a professor of economics at the University of Nottingham, said that the findings support the idea that universities have been using attractive pay to recruit top academics in order to boost their REF performance, just as football clubs compete over players to win the league.
Given the incentives involved, including the huge sums distributed on the basis of REF results, this was hardly surprising, he said. “The government wanted competition [between universities] and they got it,” he added.
The analysis was released last week as an independent review of the REF – Building on Success and Learning from Experience – chaired by British Academy president Baron Stern of Brentford, recommended that researchers should not be allowed to submit work carried out at previous universities after they switch institution.
Instead, “if individuals transfer between institutions (including from overseas) during the REF period, their works should be allocated to the HEI [higher education institution] where they were based when the work was accepted for publication”, it says.
The end to so-called research portability is designed to halt the period of costly headhunting in the lead up to the REF, which Lord Stern has in the past compared to the “transfer deadline in the Premier League”. But it could also move salary negotiating power away from star researchers, who would be unable to threaten to stop a university using their REF outputs by leaving.
“How much is that star in the window? Professorial salaries and research performance in UK universities”, a discussion paper released by Nottingham, found that the link between pay and REF performance was weaker at the research-intensive Russell Group universities, likely because academics were “prepared to accept” a lower salary to work at a more prestigious institution with more high-flying colleagues, Professor De Fraja explained.
“That explains why Russell Group universities don’t need to be so aggressive” in recruiting, he said.
But for lower ranked universities, “the only way they can recruit staff is by paying them more, and they do so with abandon”, he continued.
Professor De Fraja also argued that ending research portability means that “the UK will become more insular” because universities would be less willing to hire from overseas, given that they would not be able to submit research carried out abroad to the REF.
In recent years, many UK universities have hired top academics from countries such as Greece and Spain where conditions were squeezed, he said. “Universities were willing to hire them because they had good CVs” that could count towards a REF submission, he said, but that could change if research portability was ended.
The discussion paper also found that when a department had someone on a REF assessment panel its score increased in a “non-negligible” way.
Professor De Fraja said that he did not think this was because academics were deliberately rigging the process in favour of their own departments. Instead, “it’s more an impact of knowledge of what makes a good submission”, he said.
The effect was only seen in the more “subjective” elements of the REF – assessments of a department’s research environment and the impact of research – suggesting that having an academic on a panel helped university departments navigate potentially unclear parts of the exercise, he added.