Union puts boot into 'celebrity' culture

April 2, 2004

Phil Baty reports from the AUT's annual conference in Scarborough

A football-style transfer market of "superstar" academics is damaging university research by creating a lower league of underpaid and overworked staff, delegates at the Association of University Teachers' annual council heard last week. As with football clubs, the poaching of star talent is forcing universities into rash, short-term and high-risk decisions, it is claimed.

The association's annual conference in Scarborough passed several motions from members condemning the way in which academics' research is judged in the research assessment exercise. The assessment was criticised for being a random, unfair, secretive and divisive method of allocating research funding that was badly skewing the practice of research in the UK.

A motion from Liverpool University's AUT said that it was a matter of "grave concern" that universities were already manoeuvring for the next exercise, planned for 2008. It said that many vice-chancellors were planning to spend large sums of money on star academics who could bring established research reputations and income with them as part of a quick-fix attempt to secure top ratings in the next assessment.

Signs of increasing activity in the academic job market have emerged over recent weeks, with rising numbers of job advertisements appearing in The Times Higher .

The Liverpool motion, carried unanimously, said: "Council rejects a future for higher education where a few highly paid superstar researchers are supported by armies of underpaid and overworked staff, many of whom are on fixed-term contracts."

Speaking for the motion, Liverpool's Chris West said: "The total cost of bringing in such people and their support teams can be £500,000, including relocation costs. That would pay a 30 per cent catch-up pay increase for 75 lecturers."

Russ Bowman of Loughborough University said: "Universities would be much better off investing to help ordinary lecturers and senior lecturers do good research than to buy in stars from elsewhere. Where do these stars come from? Are they bred in a test tube? They only arrive after some other university has paid the money to get them into the position they are in. If an institution spends a lot of money developing top researchers, it can all be wasted when they move on and an angry group is left behind carrying the weight."

Alastair Hunter of Glasgow University said that, as well as demotivating other staff, universities were taking a strategic risk with money they could ill afford. "It's like a game of academic roulette where everything is wagered on a few stars. We know from Hollywood that stars can become tired and emotional or simply move on to the next blockbuster."

The conference debate came on the same day that news emerged that Queen Mary, University of London, had lost Ian Jacobs, its leading academic cancer specialist, and his 50-strong research team, to University College London. It is understood that he will take grants worth up to £25 million with him.

Queen Mary reported this week that it had recently been nominated as the first Cancer Research UK Clinical Centre with 20 principal investigators and 260 other researchers joining the school under the directorship of Nick Lemoine.

The conference also attacked the flip side of the superstar situation - the identification of under-performing staff under the latest plans for research assessment. A motion from Birmingham AUT, unanimously carried, said: "Council deplores any attempt by university managements to attach RAE-style research ratings to individual members of staff. Council further deplores any attempt by university managements to use such ratings as a means of forcing academic staff onto teaching-only contracts."

An amendment from Leeds ensured that "AUT reserves the right to consider action including a boycott of such exercises where members in an institution feel that is necessary to protect themselves from harassment, bullying and discrimination".

A motion from Glasgow's AUT said: "Council reaffirms its opposition to the RAE. Council rejects the principle that university funding should be based to such an extent on a process that can only be described (at best) as random.

"The RAE has had deleterious effects on the nature of research and academic freedom. It has not improved research quality. It has undermined equal opportunities and has negatively affected the quality of teaching. The RAE has been highly divisive and has created an atmosphere of conflict and discontent within departments."

phil.baty@thes.co.uk

HOW THE RAE HAS CREATED A 'SUPERSTAR' TRANSFER MARKET

October 1999: Warwick University's Business School takes seven top researchers from Bath University, preventing Bath from submitting its work in the 2001 research assessment exercise. Alyson Warhurst, the leader of the team of corporate strategy specialists, takes substantial industrial sponsorship from Bath's excellent-rated department to Warwick.

October 2001: Oxford University suffers a huge blow when a trio of star professors - Roy Anderson, Brian Sprat and Geoff Smith - takes about 80 researchers and millions in grants to Imperial College London's new centre for research into infection, immunology and epidemiology. Professor Anderson, a pioneer in the epidemiology of infectious diseases, is embroiled in controversy at Oxford, where he is accused of maligning a female colleague. His previous employer, Imperial College, snaps him up.

August 2003: Imperial College London poaches a team of leading theoretical physicists from Queen Mary, University of London. Chris Hull, credited with playing a key role in the second "revolution" in string theory, joins Imperial with three academic colleagues and takes four postdocs with him.

October 2003: City University cements the establishment of its new centre for charity effectiveness by poaching two of the leading academics in the field from London South Bank University.

March 2004: Ian Jacobs, cancer research specialist, takes his team of 50 researchers and grants worth £25 million from Queen Mary, University of London, to University College London.

The manoeuvring for 2008 begins

September 2003: Sheffield University takes a full-page advertisement in The Times Higher for more than 50 new academic posts. "Applications for these new posts are sought from high-calibre candidates capable of delivering first-class research and excellent student experience," the advertisement says.

October 2003: Nottingham University advertises for 20 new "research-led" professors. The chairs come with supporting academic, research and administrative posts, infrastructure, equipment, start-up funds and "highly competitive" salaries.

October 2003: The University of East Anglia creates 16 new chairs.

Aberdeen University seeks to fill more than 200 new posts over the next three years after increasing its RAE grant from £9.7 million to £10.1 million.

March 2004: Liverpool University takes a full-page colour advertisement in The Times Higher . "The university, a member of the Russell Group, returned 43 units of assessment in the RAE. We are embarking on an unparalleled programme of investment in support of up to 100 new jobs. We are seeking expressions of interest from individuals of global standing and are offering salaries and support to match our ambition," the advertisement reads.

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