Union calls for ban on ‘mock REFs’ amid fears for UK research jobs

University of Hertfordshire job cuts add to fears staff could be forced out ahead of REF 2021

November 9, 2017
Man in suit on diving board
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Balancing act: scholars face job cuts

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.

jack.grove@timeshighereducation.com

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Reader's comments (7)

Academics are like Turkeys voting for Christmas when participating in the REF. The REF is enabling managers many of whom cannot do 1 star research to tell academics they are pretty much worthless if you don't do 4* research and you only ever get a pay rise if you do 4* research. Nothing else matters.
On the other hand, as someone trying to get promoted to Professor and who has always had more than enough papers for every REF or RAE, why should more highly paid folk than me not get the boot if they cannot make the low publication bar set by REF?
Another reason to leave the profession...
Maybe you are only doing 3* so they is why you cannot get a chair ! Do four 4* and you get a chair.
Actually it will come if I manage to pull in the next grant as money is all that seems to count!
It doesn't matter how good you are, fall foul of the management and even if you get an excellent appraisal result they'll 'moderate' it to ensure your on the wrong end of the bell curve. Next comes the 'informal' invitation for a 'chat' (without Trades Union representation) and the offer of a good reference if you go voluntarily, all 'off the record', dig your heels in and you'll be 'managed' out on 'capability' grounds. Even heads of school are vulnerable to this.
Luckily, I do not work somewhere as described by NEILJOHN and I have not seen any cases presented above in my 17 years in my current department (nor actually in my time before that). However, it is frustrating not to be able to progress.

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