Newcastle University staff express fears over new ‘targets’

‘Minimum expectations’ for research income will be used as part of staff performance review

December 17, 2015
Pole vaulter, Francophone Games, Beirut, Lebanon, 2009
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Reach for it: Newcastle’s Raising the Bar initiative focuses on ‘aspiration’

Hundreds of academic staff at Newcastle University may be at risk of redundancy thanks to a new performance management programme, union leaders have claimed.

As part of the Raising the Bar initiative introduced this summer, research-active staff at Newcastle have been given “minimum expectations for research performance” in a bid to improve the university’s standing in the next research excellence framework.

Academics have been given individual targets for the amount of external research funding they are expected to achieve, with totals set according to their seniority and subject.

For instance, professors, readers and senior lecturers in the humanities, arts and social sciences will be expected to obtain at least £6,000 to £12,000 a year on average, depending on subject.

Lecturers will be asked to find £3,000 to £6,000 a year in addition to producing at least four 3* research outputs in the five-year period before the next REF.

In addition, professors and readers will “aspire to be in the top quartile in Unit of Assessment for income”, which, in the case of geography, would mean an income of £136,000 over three years.

Newcastle said the totals were “a set of reference points” for performance and did “not herald some new system of target-driven management”.

But the local University and College Union branch estimates that between 75 per cent and 85 per cent of staff in some schools would fail to meet all the new criteria.

“There are big concerns about the potentially arbitrary and discriminatory application of these criteria,” said Bruce Baker, Newcastle’s UCU vice-president and a lecturer in modern American history. He said staff were worried the targets could be used to make them redundant on capability grounds.

The funding income targets also represent a threat to academic freedom as they would effectively govern the way academics approach their subject, Dr Baker added.

Staff would be incentivised to pursue smaller, short-term projects to meet income targets, even if it meant “irrelevant or mediocre pieces of research”, he said.

“In my own subject, the funding target I face isn’t huge, but I will need to chase after £3,000 a year we don’t necessarily need when I could be doing research,” Dr Baker explained.

At least one in six universities set grant income targets for some or all of their staff, a survey of universities conducted by Times Higher Education earlier this year suggested.

A spokesman for Newcastle said Raising the Bar represented a “multimillion-pound investment in strengthening research excellence”, which would enable the university to “recruit senior academic staff and improve research facilities and premises”.

It estimated that around 83 per cent of staff are currently “on track” to meet research expectations. “We hope that, with the support we are making available, the majority of the remainder will do so in due course,” he added.

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Print headline: Research targets: who’ll get hit?

Reader's comments (1)

The article actually leaves out the most bizarre target of them all. In the humanities and social sciences, each academic is supposed to graduate on PhD student per year. Given total PhD student numbers in the UK, this would essentially require us to monopolise the supply of PhD graduates in the UK. I also doubt that the university would actually have the space and capacity in terms of workload to house and properly supervise these students.

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