Early career academics face being forced out of their jobs at a Russell Group university by “unrealistic” new research targets, a union has claimed.
The University and College Union said that several junior academics at the University of Liverpool had been told that they would not pass their probation unless they published a paper every 18 months on average judged in internal assessments to be likely to be scored as 3* – “internationally excellent” – in the 2021 research excellence framework.
“We think these REF expectations are unreasonable and unrealistic for an entry-level lecturer,” a spokesman for Liverpool’s UCU branch said, adding that the expectation was far in excess of the REF’s requirement that at least one output dating between 2014 and August 2020 should be submitted per research-active staff member. Departments are also required to submit an average of two-and-a-half outputs per staff member.
“We have no problem with the expectation that staff should produce high-quality research, but we are deeply concerned at how these expectations have risen so sharply,” the spokesman said.
The UCU claimed that several academics who left under a recent voluntary redundancy scheme – which aimed to shed 220 roles – had also mentioned the new REF expectations when leaving.
The union has also raised concerns that the internally decided REF scores had been repurposed to help decide whether probationary academics should be confirmed in post.
“Staff who have been scoring each other in good faith are now finding out these scores are being used against their colleagues, which severely undermines collegiality,” a spokesman for Liverpool’s UCU branch said. “It also undermines the accuracy of these scores because staff may now feel they have to support younger colleagues with a score that isn’t accurate.
“These scores are also, to some extent, subjective as one academic might grade a piece of work as 2* but another colleague could view it as 3* or even 4*.”
The union said that it had requested the creation of a joint committee of university managers and union leaders to address “a significant and rising number of stress, workload and equality issues”.
A University of Liverpool spokeswoman said that the university’s approach to the management of academic performance was “in accordance with our capability procedure, which was agreed formally with UCU in June 2013” and that discussions about capability or confirmations of appointment “entail a broad consideration of an academic’s contribution to the university”.
Probationary staff were “asked to demonstrate that they have fulfilled the agreed plans and priorities of their research to an internationally excellent standard” or were on course to do so, the spokeswoman said.
“The policy’s underpinning aim is to support an individual to remedy poor performance within a reasonable timescale and this remains the case,” she said.
The spokeswoman added that the university has “a set of published expectations in place for each level of academic staff to work to, including a set of research quality principles”, which were endorsed by its senate in 2016.