Plans for job losses at a UK university have raised fears about potential redundancies across the sector prompted by “mock REFs” ahead of the 2021 research excellence framework.
Three years away from the November 2020 submission deadline for the next sector-wide audit of research quality, the University of Hertfordshire has confirmed that eight senior staff within its business school are at risk of redundancy “in relation to a review of research positions”.
While the numbers of jobs at risk are small – the business school employs 244 staff – Hertfordshire appears to be one of the earliest to act upon an internal review of metrics linked to REF 2021.
For the last REF, in 2014, universities were able to choose not to submit staff deemed to be underperforming. But as omitting staff is likely to be less straightforward in REF 2021 – the Higher Education Funding Council for England has said that all research staff with a significant responsibility to undertake research should be included in submissions – there is now more of an incentive for universities to lay off researchers that they do not want to submit to the assessment.
In July, Teesside University told all its research professors to reapply for their jobs or face redundancy. The process was “part of its ambitious new Teesside 2020 strategy to move the university forward” and to build on its success in the 2014 REF, the university said.
Hertfordshire has carried out its review before the rules for the next REF have been finalised. Although Hefce has said that all research staff should be included in submissions, it is carrying out a consultation and, later this autumn, will announce the mechanisms for identifying such staff. The 2016 independent review of the REF led by Lord Stern had recommended that institutions must submit all their research staff.
Jon Berry, president of Hertfordshire’s University and College Union branch, said that “modelling of the business school had been done against a potential future REF”, which had led the university to state that eight senior academics, mainly professors and readers, had been put at risk of redundancy.
“I think the process has been handled in an extraordinarily clumsy and inept way in regard to the consultation,” said Dr Berry.
A UCU national spokesman described so-called “mock REF assessments” as a “waste of time as they are unlikely to produce similar results to the real thing and just add stress and unnecessary work for staff".
“Ofsted had the right idea when it banned mock Ofsteds in schools two years ago and the government would be doing the sector a favour if it followed suit,” he said.
In a statement, Hertfordshire said that its “vision is...to become internationally renowned as the UK’s leading business-facing university and the review will align our research strengths to achieve this”.
“The university is committed to retaining employees wherever possible and we are in discussion with trade union colleagues to ensure the process is fair and transparent,” it added.