Paid to be on RAE stand-by

November 2, 2007

An American professor has revealed that a UK university has been paying him around £900 a month for the past six months simply so it could have the option of including his research in the 2008 research assessment exercise, writes Zoë  Corbyn.

This week the academic, who asked not to be named, hit out against the practice of hiring so-called phantom staff and said that it was a "waste of taxpayers' money".

The academic said he was put on the university's books for six months at 0.2 per cent of a professorial salary - the minium required to make the practice legitimate within the RAE.

He said he knew of other high-profile North American academics on the payroll of other UK universities, both old and new, to boost RAE chances and who had "no obligations whatsoever to the university".

"I appreciate the money - it is a great subsidy for us in North America, but it is a total waste. If I were a UK taxpayer and I discovered my money was being shovelled literally out of the country into other academic salaries so even more of my money could go into the UK institution (in RAE funding) I would think it was ludicrous."

The academic's contract terminated on the October 31 "census date" - the deadline where staff have to be employed by a university for their research to count in the RAE.

He said that in his case the university had decided not to use him in its final submission. "They just kept me on their books while they decided on their best strategy. I received six months' salary without having to deliver anything." One RAE panel member told the professor his appointment was fine because the outlay was small compared to the potential gain.

Steve Smith, chairman of the 1994 Group and vice-chancellor of Exeter University, said he was aware of the practice but did not believe it to be widespread.

He said that in RAE 2008 academics' contributions to the "research environment" of their department would also be assessed by the panels. "If you are buying someone's publications, panels can see through it," he told The Times Higher .

The academic has also made up to £2,000 a day charging another department for independent advice on how to maximise its RAE submission.

He said he had recommended that excellent academics be excluded, often for "trivial" reasons, and recommended making certain phantom appointments.

"I had no choice - they wanted to maximise the return on their submission. But it is not how you should be treated as a professional," said the professor.

Malcolm Grant, the provost of University College London and chairman of the Russell Group, said he wasn't aware of phantom staff but agreed it "made one uncomfortable if it was window dressing".

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