The scandal of research assessment and insecure employment at our universities

As the current academic term ends and studies conclude for another generation of undergraduate students, work carries on for the thousands of staff employed at universities and higher education colleges across the country. Just last year, figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, analysed and released by UCU, revealed the true precarious conditions many of these workers face.

During the period 2014-15 HESA states that on average 53% of all teaching and teaching/research academic staff were employed on an insecure basis, including casual worker contracts with hourly paid rates and fewer rights and protections, through to zero-hours contracts and temp agency work. Most shocking was the shameful revelation that the “worst offenders” were within the UK’s Russell Group; with an average of 59% of staff at these elite research-intensive universities employed on insecure contracts. During this period, Scotland’s Russell Group members, the Universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow, employed 67% and 49% of their teaching and teaching/research staff on temporary or “atypical” contracts, respectively – despite both committing to increased tuition fees for international students and the latter undertaking a huge £775 million campus expansion plan.

Although the resulting backlash has driven many campuses to strive to eradicate this “Sports Direct model” of employment, such campaigns can only help to temporarily alleviate the symptoms of a far more fundamental problem, unresolvable so long as the education system continues as a mere instrument of profit in the capitalist system. UK universities depend on public funds to run, and therefore must demonstrate that they are a worthwhile investment, generating strong, high quality research. This research assessment, and hence the allocation of nearly £2 billion of annual funding to UK universities, has been carried out every 5-7 years since 1986 by REF – the Research Excellence Framework. It is ideally a tool for the unbiased analysis of research “outputs”, driving a commitment to excellence and transparency. However, as announcements are expected imminently for the proposed changes to the next REF, 2021, the fallout is still occurring from REF 2014.

Its critics are far ranging, from those who see it a as a bloated tool of bureaucracy, a “Minotaur that must be appeased by bloody sacrifices”, to a hypocritical system that is there to be played, driving a vicious culture of fear and blackmail. This game-playing to succeed in REF meant it was used as a management tool, driving a frenzy of hirings and firings. The technicalities of REF allowed institutions to submit the previous work of new staff members, with universities attempting to scoop up researchers of high status from other institutions, often hiring them on insecure contracts dependent on the outcome of their REF report. Researchers employed on short-term contracts of as little as a single day a week could be included. As only those staff members on research contracts were assessed, workers with chances of giving a less favourable REF report could be forced onto teaching-only contracts to selectively hide their outputs. There were countless accusations of ghost-writing of papers and research impact reports, as well as tailoring of publication dates and prestigious authorship placements.

This outcry has resulted in numerous research council reviews, a parliamentary bill and finally an independent review by Lord Stern. Although some suggested changes are mostly welcomed, such as the call for an inclusion of a measure of research impact on the public, many fear that others will still allow it to be used as a tool of fear against academic workers. For instance there is no guarantee that a move towards a more flexible assessment of all research-active staff will reduce gaming and unfair treatment of employees when the time comes for REF submission. The majority of academic research staff already face a career where insecurity is seen as the norm, and as the build up to REF 2021 continues there is the risk of even further instability and uncertainty. The rules for REF 2021 have yet to be announced but, despite any safeguards against this culture of gaming the system, it will be the workers at the bottom of the academic hierarchy who will bear the brunt of the clambering for reputation, status and funding.

As universities and colleges face cut after cut in public spending, with workers burdened with both rising workloads and falling pay and security, the effect on student education is clear, all while tuition fees continue to rise and prospects of better employment following graduation fall.  What is required is true democratic control of academic research institutions, with universities and colleges ran for the better development of individuals and society as part of a planned economy, not for profit.

by Sarah Walls