UCU uncovers high price of failure to hit REF targets

Poll respondents threatened with redundancy for non-submission

October 3, 2013

Source: Getty

Hit it or else: 29 per cent of Middlesex respondents reported having been threatened with redundancy over missing REF marks

More than 10 per cent of academics at eight UK universities have been told that failure to meet their institution’s expectations on producing work for the research excellence framework will lead to redundancy, according to a survey by the University and College Union.

In recent weeks, Times Higher Education has highlighted several examples of what critics have described as draconian treatment of non-submitted academics, but the UCU survey, carried out in June, suggests that policies vary widely.

Just over 4 per cent of nearly 7,500 respondents report having been informed by a manager or senior colleague that failure to meet REF expectations will result in redundancy. At Middlesex University, however, 29 per cent of respondents have received such messages.

Other institutions with high percentages include the University of Leicester (24 per cent of respondents), City University London (21 per cent), Queen’s University Belfast (18 per cent) and the universities of Birmingham (13 per cent), Sussex, Warwick and Cardiff (11 per cent each).

A Middlesex spokesman said that although the institution “places substantial new focus” on research, no compulsory redundancies had been threatened.

Meanwhile, 17 per cent of respondents at the University of Warwick say they have been told to expect disciplinary procedures for non-submission, compared with 2 per cent of all respondents.

A Warwick spokesman denied that its performance management procedures were linked to the REF.

At the University of Essex, 29 per cent of academics report having been told to expect denial of promotion, 20 per cent to expect transfer to inferior terms and conditions, and 59 per cent to expect to be moved to teaching-focused contracts. Sector averages for these threats are 10, 4 and 12 per cent, respectively.

An Essex spokesman said that it had “clear targets for all staff with research in their contracts to be submitted to the REF”, with 60 per cent of all academics to be submitted. But since “other factors” affected who were submitted, non-submission was not seen “in itself” as a “performance issue”.

He added that promotions were made in accordance with a strict set of clearly stated criteria. A small number of academics had moved on to teaching-only contracts, but Essex’s priority was to help research staff maximise their potential.

At the University of East Anglia, 36 per cent of academics have been told to expect “capability procedures” to address underperformance, compared with a sector average of 4 per cent.

A UEA spokesman said that non-submitted staff were being “mentored to help them progress their research careers”, while the institution had also “explored in a positive way the opportunity for a small number of staff” to take up teaching-focused roles, which enjoyed “parity of esteem” with research roles.

Several of the universities also said that the survey’s relatively small sample sizes – typically less than 100 responses for each institution – were not representative.

But Stefano Fella, national industrial relations official at the UCU, insisted that they were “reasonable”, with the results demonstrating “a significant level of discontent even where respondents said they were going to be included in the REF”.

Across the sector, 53 per cent of respondents fear losing their jobs if they fail to meet REF criteria. Some 61 per cent expect to be submitted and 21 per cent do not, a figure roughly evenly split between those who do not meet quality criteria and those who do not fit into institutional submission strategies.

Only 35 per cent of respondents agree that their institution’s selection procedures are transparent. Six per cent indicate that selections are made by senior managers without any input from peer review.

Meanwhile, nearly 25 per cent of respondents – and just under 30 per cent of women – say they undertake more than half of their work on REF outputs outside “reasonable” hours.

Some 34 per cent (39 per cent of women) say that meeting REF expectations has had a negative impact on their health.

Mr Fella said the survey confirmed what the UCU had been hearing from members about the impact the REF was having on their lives.

“Universities should acknowledge the REF is a bit of a game they play to maximise their reputation and funding, and separate it from treatment and assessment of staff,” he said.


Teaching test: REF plan diet off menu, but Swansea school’s workloads still hard to stomach

Swansea University’s School of Management has backed down over a proposal to transfer academics lacking four 3* papers to teaching-only roles.

But controversy continues to rage over teaching allocations and the management style of the father-and-son team spearheading the changes.

As Times Higher Education reported last month, academics at the school were incensed when its deputy dean for operations, Niall Piercy, announced without consultation in August that except in special cases, academics not deemed by Swansea’s internal “mini REF” assessment to have at least four 3* papers would be obliged to teach for up to 18 hours a week. By comparison, the average for submitted academics is six hours.

Under allocations based on the policy, the teaching loads of some staff have tripled.

After a complaint to Swansea by the University and College Union, which argued that the REF strictures contradicted the university’s career development policy, the school has agreed not to use the mini REF to assign teaching workloads.

However, academics in the school, whose dean is Professor Piercy’s father, Nigel, have complained that the teaching allocations announced on the back of the REF policy remain largely in place.

THE has been told that some staff on teaching and research contracts will be required to do more teaching than those on teaching-only deals.

Academics also argue that the allocations are based on incomplete information about workloads and prospective student numbers. They are concerned about being asked to teach modules outside their areas of expertise without adequate preparation, and warn that this could have a negative impact on the student experience.

They also fear that changes to the school’s teaching programme have not been subject to Swansea’s normal quality assurance procedures.

A Swansea spokeswoman said that a “programme of change” was under way at the School of Management in response to student feedback and the university’s ambition to “grow” the school.

She said the changes focused on “enhancing the student experience and employability through investment in…teaching facilities, improved contact hours with full staff members and smaller-group teaching”.

She added: “As with all change, some colleagues are finding it harder than others. In line with other research-led universities, all parts of [Swansea] have a workload allocation model that recognises…staff activities and…research activity. The school is actively engaged with the academic registry to align with quality assurance procedures.”

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Reader's comments (2)

It would be important to clarify the meaning of Redundancy within UK Employment Law. I copy from the Employment Rights Act 1996, Section 139: "(1) For the purposes of this Act an employee who is dimissed shall be taken to be dismissed by reason of redundancy if the dismissal is wholly or mainly attributable to- (a) the fact that his employer has ceased or intends to cease- (i) to carry on the business for the purposes of which the employee was employed by him, or (ii) to carry on that business in the place where the employee was so employed, or (b) the fact that the requirements of that business- (i) for employees to carry out work of particular kind, or (ii) for employees to carry out work of a particular kind in the place where the employee was empolyed by the empolyer, have ceased or diminished or are expected to cease or diminish." Would it be lawful to be told that "failure to meet their institution’s expectations on producing work for the research excellence framework will lead to redundancy"? I fail to understand.
At a musical celebration of Kavafis in Mexico City the poem below was referred to as "almost anachronistic"; yet I would like to dedicate it to the non-REF-returnable academics in the UK: Addition Whether I am happy or unhappy, it is not my care to examine. But of this have I the joy to be aware that in their immense addition — their detestable addition with the myriad rows of figures, I am not recorded there of the many units one. Of me there is no recognition in their numeration. And this joy suffices my ambition. Translated by John Cavafy (Poems by C. P. Cavafy. Translated, from the Greek, by J. C. Cavafy. Ikaros, 2003)