Leading UK universities spend £49 million on pre-REF job cuts

Spike in severance payments in Russell Group may be sign of attempt to shed ‘underperforming’ academics

December 20, 2018
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‘Off you go’: some see hike in Russell Group severance payments as attempt to shed ‘underperforming’ academics

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.

Earlier this month, Cardiff University announced its third voluntary severance scheme in six years and will open applications for redundancy in early 2019 to address a £21 million deficit.

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.

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com

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Print headline: Redundancy payouts soar ahead of REF

Reader's comments (1)

While the question of real underperforming is a delicate one, the redundancies effected are often performed by the autocratic management simply to assert dominance and not for for any financial reason. Their well tried and trusted tool is to devise redundancy criteria that are both retrospective and unreasonable and see who objects most. The criteria are then readjusted to dismiss the vocal objectors. The strategy is difficult to prove in the Employment Tribunal, because most Judges do not expect such deviousness. My own lawyers have managed to prove to the Tribunal that there was no redundancy situation in 2009 when me and several other professors was dismissed from the London South Bank University - after the most spectacular showing in RAE2008. However, in my capacity of his lay representative I failed to prove that the same was true in the case of Dr Fanis Missirlis, who was dismissed from Queen Mary University London in 2012. To my mind Dr Missirlis's case was even clearer than mine - but his objections were more vocal. The Judge found that if the true reason for Dr Missirlis's dismissal was his objections to restructuring, his co-author of the most vehement objection - The Letter to The Lancet - would have been dismissed too. During the second hearing this Judge disregarded the fact that this co-author was indeed dismissed two years later and that I managed to prove to another Tribunal Judge that this second dismissal was unfair. Devious senior management and Judges who trust them may be a much bigger problem than the outsiders think.

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