University barred from appealing ‘publish or perish’ ruling

Australian decision a reminder that universities cannot impose unrealistic research requirements, academic union says

July 8, 2020
University of Technology Sydney
Source: iStock

Australia’s industrial umpire has refused to let a university appeal an unfair dismissal decision, strengthening the academic union’s hand in its battle against escalating research output requirements.

The Fair Work Commission (FWC) has dismissed an application by the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) to appeal its March decision that the institution had unjustly sacked business school lecturer Lucy Zhao.

Dr Zhao’s supervisor terminated her employment last August after she had failed to meet publication targets outlined in faculty-wide guidelines. She had been required to secure at least one publication in a top-tier A* or A-ranked journal within nine months, and to “demonstrate a pipeline” of more such papers.

UTS said that the demand was not “onerous or unreasonable” and that other universities imposed similar or tougher benchmarks. But Dr Zhao said the university had overlooked her “outstanding” teaching achievements.

FWC deputy president Peter Sams agreed, ordering the institution to reinstate her and compensate her for lost payment. He said that the university appeared satisfied with her teaching and engagement, which collectively comprised 60 per cent of her workload allocation, and that this did not equate to “poor or unsatisfactory performance overall”.

UTS appealed, saying that the decision undermined universities’ ability to guarantee the adequacy of their research by ensuring academics met quality standards.

The institution also claimed that “irrelevant matters” had influenced the judgment, citing Mr Sams’ observation that the “primary purpose” of universities was to teach future generations of students.

“Universities can become ruthlessly competitive, if not obsessed, with achieving the top research rankings and reputation in order to attract students (‘code’ for income),” Mr Sams had written. “I also consider it self-evident that an academic, like all of us, will have different interests, perspectives, strengths and weaknesses.”

UTS said that it was not the FWC’s job to judge how universities should operate or what their purposes should be. It said that the judgment suggested employer’s concerns with fundamental aspects of their employees’ performance could be disregarded.

But in a majority judgement issued on 8 July, the FWC disagreed. It said that Mr Sams’ “musings” had not influenced his reasoning “and thus did not effectuate any procedural unfairness”.

“Whilst such observations were unhelpful, they did not influence the critical findings. We are not satisfied…that it would be in the public interest to grant permission to appeal.”

The National Tertiary Education Union said that Dr Zhao should now be reinstated “immediately”. It said that the finding had broader significance, cementing the original decision as a warning that universities could not saddle staff with unreasonable expectations.

“It says to management that they can’t move the goalposts,” said New South Wales state secretary Michael Thomson. “People who work hard – people who do good research – shouldn’t be judged by false criteria.”

He said that workload requirements around research could be “fairly subjective”, as could the assignation of journals. “For some fields of research, there aren’t any A* journals here in Australia,” he noted.

UTS said that it was “still reviewing the decision and unable to make any comment at this stage”.

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Reader's comments (1)

What an excellent result and a splendid precedent. Common sense at last.