Institution denies taking tougher line on academics who 'under-perform'

Union claims Birmingham introduced new regime without consultation. Paul Jump writes

September 13, 2012

Credit: Getty
Second-city blues: the UCU is championing the cause of Birmingham academics subject to disciplinary proceedings

The University of Birmingham has rejected union claims that it has surreptitiously introduced a tougher performance management regime.

Sue Blackwell, speaking on behalf of Birmingham's branch of the University and College Union, told Times Higher Education that it was aware of several academics who were currently threatened with disciplinary proceedings because their research or teaching was deemed by their head of school to be a "cause for concern".

She said the academics had been given varying targets to meet relating to factors such as student feedback, research publications, research income or the number of non-European Union doctoral students they recruit. Others, she said, had felt pressured into accepting teaching-only contracts.

She believed it was unprecedented for Birmingham academics to be subject to disciplinary proceedings purely on the basis of their teaching or research performance, and the union had concluded that the university had introduced a more "punitive" performance management regime without consultation.

She said the lack of objective criteria about what constituted a "cause for concern" had led to a lack of consistency in the policy's application. Dr Blackwell added that some heads of schools and colleges appeared to have used it to target academics with whom they had clashed or whose research they did not value.

The union said it had heard of one academic who had been criticised for a course on which he had not taught and, despite having published in highly ranked journals, was instructed instead to concentrate on a list of journals favoured by his head of school.

She also claimed that the university, whose research council income rose by more than 80 per cent in the past year, was failing to honour an agreement with the UCU not to discipline staff on the basis of their projected research excellence framework scores. Dr Blackwell said the union had contacted the university last month about one such case.

But in a statement, the university says it has not been informed of any case in which the REF is "being used as a criterion for research performance management".

"The university is clear that the decision whether to submit someone to the REF will, in itself, have no impact on someone's career. The university's senior management have reminded all heads of school of the university's approach," the statement says.

"The university is unapologetic about its commitment to ensure that our students are taught to a high standard and that those staff who are paid to carry out research do so to a good standard," it says.

It adds that university managers had met union representatives 26 times to discuss satisfactory performance levels and had clarified its position in writing. It says the disciplinary hearings the UCU had highlighted would be resolved according to criteria that had been agreed with the union, adding that it would be inappropriate to comment further on ongoing cases.

Dr Blackwell said the union planned to launch a campaign around performance management in the coming term. "Morale among our members is at rock bottom due to the oppressive style of management currently being perpetrated on them," she said.

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