A vivid description of rampant managerialism and the instrumentalisation of research

Colleagues at Liverpool UCU are currently balloting for industrial action against a punitive and unreasonable Research Excellence Framework Code of Practice. This article was sent to us anonymously by a member at the University and provides a vivid description of rampant managerialism and the instrumentalisation of research. Please send your support to lucu@liverpool.ac.uk

Imagine a world in which academics could be sacked and disciplined just because one colleague didn’t rate another colleague’s research highly enough. Welcome to my world. My university is now threatening to dismiss staff because of a subjective score made by an anonymous colleague.

No one can deny that Universities must take REF preparation for the Research Excellence Framework (REF) seriously. And although few like it, we recognise it is a game we need to play. But a line has been crossed here. REF preparation is not being used in ways that identify our strengths but is being used to undermine staff and drive an aggressive and toxic management culture.

This is how it works. The University of Liverpool’s ‘Research Policy Principles’ demand that every research active member of staff has their research papers marked using REF criteria (1*-4*). This is normal in REF preparations across the sector, and neither I, nor my colleagues have any particular objection to that.

What is different at Liverpool is that staff must achieve at least four papers or books within the current REF cycle scored at 3* (internationally leading) AND if they fail to hit this target, they face “capability procedures”, the formal procedure that enables dismissal. Yet this level of performance expectations is way beyond the recently confirmed REF expectation of an average of 2.5 submitted outputs per research-active member of staff in each REF submission.

Our dispute is not simply about the level of expectation, but the way the process is being used. In this system, the reviewer is anonymous but the author isn’t. This means that there is no ‘anonymous marking’ principle that students now universally expect for their assessment. And, unlike the marking of student assessments, because the marker is anonymous, there is no accountability. In other words, there is no safeguard against particular groups of staff facing discrimination in this system.

The system ultimately depends on notoriously unreliable subjective judgments. One of our colleagues was threatened with redundancy for producing work that was rated in one department as an unacceptable 2* (even though it had been published in a respected, peer-reviewed journal) and in another department was awarded the acceptable rating of 3*. External colleagues from other universities are being unwittingly used to participate in this. In one department, an external reviewer was paid piecemeal rates (at £100 per paper) to ‘re-assess’ work that had already been rated as an acceptable 3*. The rating duly came back on both papers as ‘2*’.

The problem with asking for one internationally leading paper every 18 months is that even if this quality and frequency of publication by everyone is possible (researchers need a long lead-in period to produce ‘internationally leading’ research), rising student numbers and pressures to do more and more administrative tasks make it impossible to find the time for quality research. Our dispute also demands a review to the timetabling policy that has failed to give a large number of staff any meaningful research time.

Some academics from other institutions might recognize something like this situation, but the University of Liverpool has made it clear that it will use performance metrics for disciplinary capability activation. This practice is part of a tidal wave of policies being introduced or more closely followed in a relatively short space of time; a tsunami of toxic performance management demands.

And so, at the University of Liverpool we are balloting to go on strike. If my colleagues vote to go out on strike over this, then I for one will be there on the picket line. At the moment this looks like the only way to stop the reckless and destructive fervor that has gripped managers at the University of Liverpool.

This may be the first strike against the use of high REF targets at Liverpool to harshly manage the performance of staff. If we are forced to take industrial action, it will be to a strike to stop the creeping culture of toxic performance management that is threatening to spread across the sector.