Reffing Madness

I’m motivated to make a quick post in order to direct you to a blog post by David Colquhoun that describes the horrendous behaviour of the management at Queen Mary, University of London in response to the Research Excellence Framework. It seems that wholesale sackings are in the pipeline there as a result of a management strategy to improve the institution’s standing in the league tables by “restructuring” some departments.

To call this strategy “flawed” would be the understatement of the year. Idiotic is a far better word.  The main problem being that the criteria being applied to retain or dismiss staff bear no obvious relation to those adopted by the REF panels. To make matters worse, Queen Mary has charged two of its own academics with “gross misconduct” for having the temerity to point out the stupidity of its management’s behaviour. Read on here for more details.

With the deadline for REF submissions fast approaching, it’s probably the case that many UK universities are going into panic mode, attempting to boost their REF score by shedding staff perceived to be insufficiently excellent in research and/or  luring  in research “stars” from elsewhere. Draconian though the QMUL approach may seem, I fear it will be repeated across the sector.  Clueless university managers are trying to guess what the REF panels will think of their submissions by staging mock assessments involving external experts. The problem is that nobody knows what the actual REF panels will do, except that if the last Research Assessment Exercise is anything to go by, what they do will be nothing like what they said they would do.

Nowhere is the situation more absurd than here in Wales. The purported aim of the REF is to allocated the so-called “QR” research funding to universities. However, it is an open secret that in Wales there simply isn’t going to be any QR money at all. Leighton Andrews has stripped the Higher Education budget bare in order to pay for his policy of encouraging Welsh students to study in England by paying their fees there.

So here we have to enter the game, do the mock assessments, write our meaningless “impact” cases, and jump through all manner of pointless hoops, with the inevitable result that even if we do well we’ll get absolutely no QR money at the end of it. The only strategy that makes sense for Welsh HEIs such as Cardiff University, where I work, is to submit only those researchers guaranteed to score highly. That way at least we’ll do better in the league tables. It won’t matter how many staff actually get submitted, as the multiplier is zero.

There’s no logical argument why Welsh universities should be in the REF at all, given that there’s no reward at the end. But we’re told we have to by the powers that be. Everyone’s playing games in which nobody knows the rules but in which the stakes are people’s careers. It’s madness.

I can’t put it better than this quote:

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.

Any reader of this blog who works in a university will recognize the sentiments expressed there. But let’s not blame it all on the managers. They’re doing stupid things because the government has set up a stupid framework. There isn’t a single politician in either England or Wales with the courage to do the right thing, i.e. to admit the error and call the whole thing off.

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8 Responses to “Reffing Madness”

  1. [...] “I’m motivated to make a quick post in order to direct you to a blog post by David Colquhoun that describes the horrendous behaviour of the management at Queen Mary, University of London in response to the Research Excellence Framework. It seems that wholesale sackings are in the pipeline there as a result of a management strategy to improve the institution’s standing in the league tables by ‘restructuring’ some departments …” (more) [...]

  2. Firing staff to improve an imaginary ranking has limited value as survival strategy. Next time the REF criteria may change and you will again need to fire staff. Very quickly you focus yourself into insignificance. Or non-existence, as in the case of Utrecht.

  3. Bryn Jones Says:

    The suggested QMUL strategy is very odd. It is not clear to me how “underperforming” staff members would be shed. Would they be offered early retirement? Surely they would not be made redundant, because there would be no rational grounds for redundancy if they are still performing well under all criteria other than being REF leaders?

    However, I would add that, were universities to adopt policies like these with redundancies for staff who are not internationally leading at research, conditions for staff on “permanent” contracts would still be much better than for staff on short-term contracts. At least excellence in research would mean “permanent” staff would keep their jobs, unlike staff on short-term contracts. Perhaps what we are seeing is the culture universities have imposed on short-term staff beginning to spread to all staff members.

  4. Sadly, I think the QMUL strategy will work. Permanent jobs are scarce and they will likely attract sufficiently competent researchers who are prepared to do what they want and write well cited papers in fashionable research areas.

    However, they will do this at the expense of academic freedom and long term innovation, which is a dreadful price to pay to move up a few nodges in a subjectively assembled league table.

    Have these managers studied the history of science ? If so, they’ve learned none of the lessons.

    If I’d known this is how universities would end up (and there is every indication that this is the future) I would have gone away and done something else.

    • telescoper Says:

      I’ve felt the same way for some time, but I came to the decision that the only way to stay sane was to carry on with what I do (like any dinosaur) until I get phased out and replaced with someone more suited to the new world.

      • Its sad that we’ve let the purpose of our jobs get subtly redefined over the years. I’ve always believed that its the job of an academic to tackle the questions that he/she finds interesting and its the job of the university to support this (or at the very least not stop this). I could also add that a healthy “failure” rate for projects going down blind alleys is not only unavoidable but a sign that universities (+ research councils) are fostering the type of open curiosity-led research which has traditionally led to unexpected breakthroughs which pull us up to the next level and then become the mainstream science which gives those lovely citations and Nature articles.

        Unfortunately, advocating “failure” in experimental science is never going to be a popular argument even if it is essential by telling us what doesn’t work.

  5. [...] 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 [...]

  6. Unless some high-profile academic leaves the country loudly announcing that such shenanigans are the reason for doing so, or unless there is a widespread public demonstration on the part of academics, why should anything be expected to change?

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