Transfers help take teams to top

July 31, 1998

EXTERNAL assessment of research in higher education (and indeed teaching and administration) is essential, but leaves much to be desired. Making the research assessment exercise fair, open and incapable of manipulation is welcome. Clarifying how the ratings of each individual and institution are reached and providing for appeals is desirable. The poaching of staff and the transfer market are not however problems that need addressing.

If institutions prevent transfers, they can maintain or improve their ratings at no cost. Transfers imperil research income. Institutions may have to entice researchers from elsewhere with higher emoluments.

There are subjects where research undertaken by teams properly belongs to the institution. Even then there is a price to be paid in academic health.

Departments denied new faces and ideas become moribund. Already there is much less movement laterally and upwards than 30 or even ten years ago. Professors are now commonly appointed internally rather than by external competition. Institutions save money by appointing personal professors at the bottom of the professorial range in the older universities or by leaving them as principal lecturer in the new universities and colleges.

Yet another incentive to join other institutions is removed. Academic mobility has suffered anyway from national trends in house prices, mortgage rates and the upper-rate income tax threshold.

Most academic households now require two salaries: appointment elsewhere often entails either living apart and maintaining two establishments or sacrificing one income. Combined with the depreciation of academic salaries and the loss of differentials, many such moves are subsidised by the new appointments.

Promotion to a personal chair at a slightly enhanced salary has been used to deter a move. Controls will exacerbate a stagnant employment market. What is proposed threatens to restrict rewards, deny to academics the benefit of their own achievements, and obstruct career advancement.

Of what other trade is this true? Football has abolished the maximum wage and allows freedom of contract. Controls on movement constitute restraint of trade.

By encouraging academics to mark time until retirement and not to adapt it damages even institutions that encourage it. Surely no one wants demoralised staff who cannot move? Why should not institutions compete on salary and terms for the best researchers, teachers, administrators?

The poaching of staff and the academic transfer market, though minuscule, help alleviate the rigidities, inequalities, and complacency endemic in higher education. If only a minor contribution, it nevertheless deserves wholehearted support.

Michael. A. Hicks King Alfred's College Winchester

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