Swansea’s tough REF plans provoke disquiet

Staff complain over ‘arbitrary’ yardstick and teaching-only threat

September 5, 2013

Source: Getty

Sword of Damocles: Swansea academics who fail to produce ‘quality’ REF papers may be moved to teaching-only roles

Fears about the consequences of non-submission to the research excellence framework will be heightened by the revelation that management academics at Swansea University typically will be moved to teaching-only roles if they do not have four papers deemed to be of at least 3* quality.

The announcement was made in a memo sent last month to Swansea’s School of Management by its deputy dean for operations, Niall Piercy. Except for early career researchers and those with “special circumstances”, academics who do not have the requisite number and quality of papers will be obliged to teach for up to 18 hours a week.

This compares with an average teaching load of six hours for those designated “research active” if judged by the university’s REF submissions assessment to hit its quality and quantity benchmark.

A Swansea academic, who did not want to be named, condemned the assessment exercise as “arbitrary” and said the policy had been introduced without consultation. In some cases, teaching allocations for 2013-14 announced on the back of the policy contradicted both earlier announcements and employment contracts, the academic added.

“The lack of collegiality and dismissive attitude to current faculty by the new regime is going to have an adverse effect on staff retention, recruitment and the student experience, from which the school will take many years to recover – if it does at all,” the academic said.

A Swansea spokeswoman said the plans were in line with the university’s “innovative” Academic Career Pathways scheme, which aims to “ensure that academic strengths, whether in research, teaching, the wider student experience, leadership or innovation…are all appropriately recognised”.

She added: “The…strategy means introducing higher teaching hours in order to increase the amount of contact time our students have with academic staff. In a highly competitive market, it is vital that we seek to enhance student experience and improve the learning environment.”

Last month, Times Higher Education revealed that all University of Leicester academics who are not submitted to the REF will be moved to teaching-only contracts or given up to a year to improve their research performance unless they can prove extenuating circumstances.

Blood ties

Professor Piercy’s appointment has been the subject of controversy. In May, three months after he took up his role, his father, Nigel Piercy, was unveiled as the School of Management’s new dean and his father’s partner, Nikala Lane, was made reader.

The Swansea spokeswoman described Professor Nigel Piercy as “an academic with a global reputation” who will “help sustain the university’s upward trajectory”, while both his son and Dr Lane were appointed after an “open recruitment process”.

“It is far from unusual for partners and family members to work together in academic roles,” she said.

Professor Niall Piercy, who gained his PhD in 2004, entered two papers to the 2008 research assessment exercise when working at the University of Bath. Both were published in the Journal of Strategic Marketing, which in 2009 was rated 2 (out of a possible 4) by the Association of Business Schools’ influential International Guide to Academic Journal Quality.


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Reader's comments (4)

I love the bit at the end indicating that Prof Piercy has moved into management and is now attacking colleagues despite (or because?) having a less than stellar research career of his own. You might have clarified, though, that this approach can only be "arbitrary" - that is not just the view of one academic. The REF rates research submitted by a unit as a whole - not on an individual basis. So Swansea will be making judgements about individuals based on what? Most likely a REF dry-run assessor and perhaps internal opinions - i.e. the arbitrary judgements of a few individuals, who are unlikely to be experts in the areas where Swansea academics are researching. What it amounts to is a drastic change in staff terms and conditions on the basis of highly personal judgements. If not illegal it is certainly immoral.
Aren't they going to hit a huge 'equal opportunities' legislation-thing here? What happens if an academic as a GPA of 3*, but this is arrived at via 4 papers which are assessed as: 4,4,2,2? Does that mean that said academic gets moved to a teaching only contract but his/her colleague who got 3,3,3,3 stays on reseach? How can this rating sytem be applied *only* in the management department? Is it possible to have a GPA of 2* - or 2.75* - in other disiciplines (e.g. physics, sociology, education) and not face these punitive measures? Does this mean that a 2.75* management scholar is moved to teaching-only, whereas a 2.5* educationalist stays on teaching and reseach? Surely this policy has to be applied across the whole university, not just targeted at one department? What are the systems in place to ensure transparency in the assessment process? What if a researcher has 4 papers which are in journals which the ABS recognises as 3* or above, but the one 'dry-run assessor' happens not to like, say, the psychometric paradigm said work is based in and gives the 4 submitted papers a 1* grade? Does this mean that the 12 journal reviewers of the targeted academic's work (assuming 3 referees for each paper) are negated in favour of the one opinon of 'dry-run assessor'? And as for the very apparent nepotism in play here ... Many, many problems in Swansea I fear..
Oh dear, I see that Swansea is following in the path of Queen Mary, London, in its determination to commit scientific suicide (as described in http://www.dcscience.net/?s=QMUL It is tragic that such a prominent effect of the REF is to further the separation of teaching and research. at least in lower grade institutions (or those determined to reach that status)
Steve Tyler's comment nails it. But equally worrying is the supine response of UCU to this kind of thing. If it takes it up at all, it will be a local case handled by volunteers. Meanwhile god knows what kind of grandstanding will be happening in UCUworld. UCU needs to identify places which are trying to deal with this godawful REF process humanely - and there are some good research institutions where this is the case - and also set its own legally informed code of practice as to what is acceptable and what is not. But even more worrying is that academia is divided into the 3.5 gpa haves, and the have nots, and really too many academics, if they are in the former, don't give on. BTW, if the situation at Swansea is common - Father - Dean; Son -Deputy Dean; Father's Partner Reader, please, where else in the world has anything like this happened ? BTW BTW, in case anyone hasn't read my blog on this: http://www.criticalfaculties.org/kill-the-ref-in-complex-circumstances/