Newcastle University ‘to drop draconian research targets’

Marking boycott ends after UCU says managers agree to scrap ‘unfair’ targets

June 8, 2016
Vianca du Toit fails to clear high jump during Olympic Trials
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Draconian targets: the ‘terminology of “Raising the Bar” has been tarnished and the research expectations at individual level have raised concerns’, said the Newcastle spokeswoman

Newcastle University is to drop what a union has called “draconian” research funding targets after staff agreed to call off a marking boycott.

Members of the institution’s University and College Union branch confirmed that they will not continue with industrial action, which began on 3 June, after negotiators struck an agreement with managers over the university’s controversial “Raising the Bar” performance strategy.

Under the plans to improve staff outputs for the 2020 research excellence framework, research-active academics would have been given individual targets for the amount of external grant funding they would be expected to achieve according to their seniority and subject. The targets were branded “unfair” by UCU representatives, who said staff had no control over whether funding councils approved their grant bids.

In addition, new targets on the numbers of PhD students and publications were also due to be imposed, although Newcastle insisted these were actually “a set of reference points” for performance and did “not herald some new system of target-driven management”.

According to the UCU, the university agreed on 6 June to withdraw the proposals and to work with the union and academic staff on a revised method of maintaining research quality.

Iain Owens, UCU regional official, said he welcomed the scrapping of the “draconian targets which our members felt would have been beyond their control and so inherently unfair”.

“There was no doubt they were going to cause a great deal of needless stress and anxiety,” he added, shortly after the union ratified its stance on 8 June.

The agreement ends a dispute that the union claimed could have led to some students having their graduation deferred this summer.

“We now want to move forward positively by working with the university in a collegiate way to produce a new policy,” said Mr Owens.

A joint statement, published on the site and signed by representatives from the UCU and Newcastle, states that industrial action will be cancelled in parallel with the withdrawal of “expectations for research performance documents” and the “Raising the Bar terminology”.

It also says both parties will “develop a common understanding and collegial approach to improving research” and recognise that it is “problematic to focus exclusively on quantitative targets”.

Accordingly, Newcastle intends to “encourage staff to participate in establishing appropriate subject and Unit of Assessment academic frameworks to improve our research performance” which will be created via “collaborative working” by the end of December 2016.

A Newcastle spokeswoman said the university was “pleased that the UCU has agreed to end the marking boycott with immediate effect”.

On the Raising the Bar project, she added that there was a “clear consensus across the university on the need to improve our research performance”, which had been discussed with UCU representatives, she explained.

However, while the £45 million allocated to the project was “beginning to show good results”, the “terminology of ‘Raising the Bar’ has been tarnished and the research expectations at individual level have raised concerns”, the Newcastle spokeswoman continued.

"With the consensus we now have on the need for improvement, and with the agreed framework approach at academic unit level, we will drop the terminology of ‘Raising the Bar’ and have withdrawn the university-level and faculty-level research expectations documents,” she added.

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