Monday, 1 August 2016

How British research academics will be encouraged to emigrate by new research rules

The just published 'Stern Review' on how research outputs of UK academics are going to be valued is likely to seriously blight the careers of British academics and lead to a 'brain drain' as they seek to advance their careers abroad.  A change in the arcane rules of the 'Research Excellence Framework' (REF) will mean that the work of British academics is now likely to be of much higher value to foreign universities than British ones.

Under the practices of academia every 6 years British university departments are assessed for the quality of their research output, and this exercise, now known as the 'Research Excellence Framework' (REF). The original purpose of this exercise was to have some rational basis for distributing monies for research time and resources between university institutions, although the amount of money at stake has diminished as austerity measures have taken their toll.

One of the criticisms of the process has been, as the Stern Review, says, that 'smaller institutions with strong teams in particular areas which have previously been potential targets for ‘poaching’(para 99 point iv). Under the existing system if somebody if doing well then they would have good prospects in applying for a job with another university since the academic would carry with them their research output. Either the host university would have to give an offer of promotion to the academic to keep them, or the academic would most likely leave to take up the new post at a different university. However this had the side-effect that people could be poached by departments who either had greater prestige in a particular area or at least had resources to offer people more money.

But now under the Stern review recommendations if British academics switch from one department in one university to a different university then they will no longer take the value of their research outputs. This could lead to some odd effects. One effect could be that towards the end of each cycle there would be a sort of vague 'transfer window' during which academics who had amassed good records and who could blag themselves about their future could get jobs in other universities. However, another, rather more perverse effect is that in between such times staff would most likely find themselves like beached whales who could not get promotion in other British universities since their research output could no longer be transferred.

Note that I say, promotion to 'British' universities, because the same rules would not apply abroad. British academics would be welcome in other countries since these foreign universities would in no way be bound by the UK REF rules and would be able to use the value of their research in the international league tables of universities without suffering any financial penalty. Indeed in some ways the British university who has 'lost' the staff would actually benefit. Why? well they would retain any research output made by that academic while they were working there whilst the university would no longer have to pay for it! More bizarrely of course, universities could actually dismiss people, make them redundant, and still report their work to the REF!

Of course there are lots of gremlins waiting to crawl out of this piece of do-goodery by Lord Stern, but I would emphasise the particularly irksome gremlin that it is highly likely that lots of British academics will move abroad to further their careers. Really, all Lord Stern's attempt to stop 'poaching' is doing is creating a different, arguably much greater problem. At least with the current problem of poaching it was British universities who were getting the benefit. Now it will be the foreign universities who will be doing the poaching and getting the benefit. And, post Brexit, many academics are just looking for good excuses to emigate anyway!

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