Danny Alexander on the Andrew Marr show

I watched Danny Alexander (A Liberal Democrat MP and currently Chief Secretary to the Treasury) this morning on the Andrew Marr show. All a little depressing really. We will have austerity until 2018 and the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) suggest that we will need additional cuts or tax rises (or both) next year. Admittedly, the OBR doesn’t have a great record, but I suspect that they may be right this time.

What has been confusing me is that despite the financial crisis and the subsequent austerity, I work in a sector (Higher Education) that appears to be going through something of a hiring spree (in my and related areas at least). There’s no promise of an increase in funding, so why do we think we can hire when everyone else is cutting back? What’s driving it is (I believe) the forthcoming Research Excellence Framework (REF2014). REF2014 will not only produce a ranking for each area, it will also distribute a large sum of money to the Higher Education sector and the amount that a university gets will be largely determined by the assessed quality of its research outputs. Universities therefore see it is a crucial that they do well as it influences how much money they get and how they are perceived relative to their “competitors”.

So what are they doing? Well there are quite a large number of good researchers who do not have permanent jobs but do have long-term Fellowships. These researchers can be included in the REF2014 submission. However, if they’re good another university may offer them a permanent job to attract them away. It therefore ends up a little like an arms race. You don’t want to lose your top researchers, so to keep them you then have to offer them a permanent job. Additionally, if you could attract a top researcher away from a “competitor”, even better. Furthermore, most of these people are on Fellowships so their salaries are covered for the next few years. You can include them in the REF submission, but you don’t need to pay for them now.

So, here’s what’s worrying me. We seem to be expanding at a time when everyone else is faced with cuts. We, however, don’t need to pay for this expansion at the moment. Given that there isn’t any real expectation of funding increases, there is a real chance that we may not be able to pay for it in the future when these new academics come off their various fellowships. We may therefore have more academics than we can afford and may, therefore, be forced to make redundancies. Those who are at risk are, however, not likely to be the new hires but will be current academics whose research may not be as strong as their universities would like.

I, personally, feel that this is morally questionable. Technically you can only make a job redundant, not a person. If you have some staff who will not make a strong contribution to REF2014, you can’t make them redundant and then replace them (although this does not appear to be stopping Queen Mary, University of London). You could fire them, but universities are reluctant to do this. However, if you effectively replace these people now, with researchers who are currently on Fellowships, you can then make the jobs redundant in the future when the new people start coming onto your payroll. It’s now technically legal as these jobs will not be replaced, and hence it is the jobs that is being made redundant, not the person. I can’t claim that this is what is definitely happening, but it is clearly a risk and, essentially, what we’re risking are the jobs and careers of some fraction of our academic community. Some might argue that these are likely to be the weakest researchers but this ignores the other contributions that they might be making.

I don’t know if we really will see academic redundancies in the next few years. I might be wrong and I hope I am. It just seems that given the financial situation the country’s in, how can the Higher Education sector expand when everyone else is contracting? Of course maybe we’ll see some kind of recovery in the next few years. Maybe there will be enough natural wastage to compensate for the current expansion. Maybe we’ll be able to continue attracting funding from outside the UK (from the EU). Who knows, but I just feel that it’s not worth the risk and I hope that it doesn’t ultimately damage what is currently an excellent Higher Education sector.

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