If you’ve read any of my earlier posts (The negative impact of REF and REF2014:Good or bad?) you’ll know that I’m not a fan of the forthcoming Research Excellence Framework. To add to my discomfort, I heard a rumour recently that all (or most) of the academic staff in an Astronomy group somewhere in the UK were having to reapply for their jobs and that there would be 3 fewer jobs available than are currently filled. Furthermore, the reason for doing this (according to my source) is not because of financial constraints, but because the university (or department) believe they can improve their REF score by reducing the size of the Astronomy group and re-investing that money in a different area. I don’t know if this is true and I’m a little surprised that there hasn’t been more of an outcry if it is indeed true. If anyone knows anything and would like to comment, feel free to do so.
What does, however, seem to be true is that something very similar is happening at Queen Mary, University of London. As highlighted by the the telescoper in a recent post (Reffing Madness). The management at Queen Mary, University of London seem to think that they can improve their REF score by restructuring some departments, which will require sacking a large number of academic staff. There is much more detail in David Colquhoun’s post, but essentially the management has defined targets for number of publications, number of publications in high-impact journals, number of PhD students, and amount of grant income. They’ve set level for each stage of an academic career and anyone who doesn’t meet these targets will be out.
As pointed out by David Colquhoun in his post, and by many of the commentors, the targets don’t make sense in the first place. Furthermore, two academics who wrote a letter to the Lancet criticising this new policy are now under investigation for “gross misconduct”. All of this seems like a complete violation of what an academic career is about and entirely distorts the purpose of universities. Ultimately we want to engage with students and the public and carry out scholarship and research to better understand the world around us. This requires getting funding to support the research and requires publishing papers so that our work can be made available to other academics and, ideally, to the general public. The reason we do research is not so that universities can make money. We get money to support our research.
Prioritising research income and number of publications seems like an extremely dangerous strategy. It may be successful in the sense that research income and number of publications may indeed increase, but it doesn’t guarantee that what takes place will have any intrinsic value. In fact, I would argue that it almost guarantees that what takes place will not have any intrinsic value. It also essentially ends academic freedom. Not only can you be investigated for “gross misconduct” if you publicly criticise your university’s management, you can also be fired if your research track record does not match what your management regards as acceptable. Again, not only does this create an environment where academics are reluctant to take risks with their research, it also makes it much more unlikely that anyone who has career options would come to work at a UK university.
I won’t say much more as others have commented more fully and more clearly than I have. I’ll finish this post with a quote about university managers from David Bignell, emeritus professor of zoology at Queen Mary. Others have already highlighted this quote, but I think it is worth doing it again as it probably comes as close to hitting the nail on the head as it is possible to do.
“These managers worry me. Too many are modest achievers, retired from their own studies, intoxicated with jargon, delusional about corporate status and forever banging the metrics gong. Crucially, they don’t lead by example.”