Judgment raises questions over ‘publish or perish’ rules

Critics say Australian tribunal finding confuses workload measures with performance ratings

March 16, 2020
Lucy Zhao

Australia’s academic union has signalled that it will campaign against universities’ “unrealistic” research output requirements after a legal ruling raised questions over the enforceability of publication benchmarks.

The country’s industrial relations tribunal, the Fair Work Commission (FWC), has ordered the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) to reinstate an academic it sacked last August for failing to publish in top-flight journals.

The university had warned business school lecturer Lucy Zhao that she would be dismissed because she had “failed to reach the required performance standards” expected of an academic at her level.

“Staff…are expected to achieve and maintain high-quality research in line with the university’s strategic aim of delivering excellent research with impact,” provost Andrew Parfitt explained.

Dr Zhao’s supervisor, David Michayluk, decided to terminate her employment after she had failed to meet publication targets outlined in faculty-wide benchmarks and workload guidelines. She had been required to secure at least one publication in a top-tier A* or A-ranked journal within nine months, and to “demonstrate a pipeline” of more such papers.

UTS said this demand was not “onerous or unreasonable”. Other universities imposed similar or tougher benchmarks, Professor Michayluk said.

But Dr Zhao said the university had overlooked her “outstanding” teaching achievements, and argued that it could take a year or two for papers to be reviewed and accepted by top journals. The tribunal heard that the benchmarks were still being phased in and were considered “aspirational” rather than prescriptive measures for judging staff performance.

FWC deputy president Peter Sams sided with Dr Zhao, saying the university appeared satisfied with her teaching and engagement, which collectively comprised 60 per cent of her workload allocation. “This means Dr Zhao’s alleged poor performance [in research] still left her at 60 per cent of achieved performance,” he wrote in an 11 March decision.

“It is difficult to conceptually and rationally conclude that a 60 per cent performance rating equated to poor or unsatisfactory performance overall.”

Mr Sams chided universities for being “ruthlessly competitive, if not obsessed, with achieving the top research rankings” in a drive to attract students and tuition fees. This risked distracting them from “the focus of providing a quality learning experience”, which was the “primary purpose of a first-class university”.

The Australian Higher Education Industrial Association, which represents employers, said the case had nothing to do with rankings. “Universities have a right to require reasonable research output from their academic staff,” said executive director Stuart Andrews.

“The decision wrongly downplays the need for academic staff to meet reasonable performance objectives in each of the core areas of teaching, research and engagement.”

UTS said it was “disappointed” with the decision and would consider an appeal. It said it had followed the process laid out in its enterprise agreement with staff.

But the National Tertiary Education Union said it planned to ensure that the tribunal’s findings were “implemented across the sector”. State secretary Michael Thomson said “unrealistic” requirements to publish in top journals were “worryingly” prevalent – particularly in business schools – and were used “selectively” to target individuals.

“It can be hit and miss in how it’s applied,” he said. Faculty heads interested in cultivating their staff’s capabilities used the benchmarks to “encourage and bring people forward”, but those more focused on their own careers used them to “bully individuals they don’t like”.

john.ross@timeshighereducation.com

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