Staff at a Russell Group university may soon strike over what union activists have called “unrealistic” new research targets that, they claim, will lead to job losses.
The University of Liverpool’s University and College Union opened a ballot on industrial action on 4 March over academic performance management linked to the 2021 research excellence framework.
The union claimed that Liverpool recently raised the bar for expected research performance to “unreasonable” levels that will in effect force some early career staff out of the university. It told Times Higher Education that several junior academics have been informed that they will not pass their probation unless they publish, every 18 months on average, a paper that is judged in internal assessments to be likely to be scored as “internationally excellent”, equivalent to a 3* rating in the REF.
That level is far in excess of what is demanded by the REF, which requires at least one output dating between 2014 and August 2020 to be submitted per research-active staff member, the union said.
The UCU branch has also cited concerns over possible moves to include student feedback in staff evaluation procedures and a new timetable policy, which it claims cuts research time, in its decision to ballot for strike action.
“The bar, in terms of research expectations, continues to feel extremely high,” a UCU branch spokesman told THE, adding that academics were angry about the “lack of fairness and transparency” over how research outputs would be evaluated.
He added that the union was confident that UCU members would back the action, with 63 per cent of voters in an indicative ballot held earlier this year supporting strikes.
The union, the spokesman continued, would “absolutely smash” the 50 per cent turnout threshold that recently prevented the UCU from striking over this year’s national pay offer, given that 58 per cent of branch members had voted in the indicative ballot.
“These are unreasonable expectations, and our members are fully prepared to take action to protect jobs,” he said, adding that negotiations with the university had broken down over its failure to modify its internal assessment policies.
A Liverpool spokeswoman said that it was “disappointing that UCU has decided to step away from the agreed disputes process, at a time when good progress continues to be made and a resolution is thought to be in sight, to ballot for industrial action”.
The university, which insists that its approach to performance management was agreed formally with the UCU in June 2013 and subsequently endorsed by its senate in 2016, added that it had “offered a significant number of proposals addressing UCU’s concerns” at a meeting in early February and had “agreed to have a further meeting to clarify only three of these points” as part of a dispute procedure agreed with the union.
Under the rules for the 2021 REF, universities will be able to submit research conducted by academics who they had subsequently made redundant.