Leading UK universities spent almost £50 million on severance payments and early retirement inducements for staff last year, in a move seen by some as a sign of institutions shedding academics who they perceived to be underperforming ahead of the next research excellence framework.
Analysing newly published university financial statements, Times Higher Education found that institutions within the Russell Group of 24 large research-intensive universities spent an average of £2.4 million each on “loss of office” payments to employees in 2017-18.
That represents a 56 per cent increase on the average spend of £1.6 million on departing staff in 2016-17, with the total bill for the 20 universities that declared payments standing at £48.8 million in 2017-18.
Durham University paid the most in staff pay-offs within the Russell Group, spending nearly £6.9 million in 2017-18, which included monies paid under a voluntary severance scheme designed to “promote increased efficiency and effectiveness in professional support service”, its accounts state.
The University of Manchester paid around £6.2 million in loss of office payments in 2017-18, while the universities of Leeds and Liverpool paid £4.2 million and £4 million respectively. Some £3.5 million was paid to staff at the University of Southampton in 2017-18.
This is the first year that English universities have been required to declare how much they paid in loss of office payments under new rules introduced by the Office for Students, which replaced previous guidance that limited such disclosures to senior staff.
Gianni De Fraja, professor of economics at the University of Nottingham, who has researched the REF, said that the increase in severance payments was probably linked to the 2021 assessment.
New rules that mean all research-active staff must submit at least one output to the next REF have resulted in universities being keener to shed underperforming researchers, explained Professor De Fraja.
“The new rules may reduce the incentive to hire top research staff but they also reduce the incentive to retain [less stellar] researchers,” he said of efforts to stop REF “game-playing”. “We’re also seeing people’s contracts changed in various ways and this is all probably prompted by the REF.”
Universities may also be incentivising departures to free up resources for the recruitment of “superstar” researchers able to submit up to five outputs to the REF, Professor De Fraja added.
The tightening of university finances, following a freeze in tuition fees in England, may also explain efforts to find efficiencies via voluntary redundancies.
The latest figures come as staff at the University of Liverpool consider taking strike action over what have been described as “unrealistic” research output targets introduced ahead of the REF, which may force out some staff.