The REF and temporary staff

Folks might be interested in signing this petition…

More and more university lecturers and researchers are now employed on short-term contracts that force them to spend huge amounts of time looking for their next job and to move constantly from one place to another. Among the many ways these people are exploited is that universities hire them on short-term contracts just before the REF; now, when we are reacting to the REF results, it is easy to forget that some of the people responsible for certain universities’ success have already lost their jobs at those universities.

The next REF should give universities an incentive to employ staff on longer-term contracts, by weighting submissions so that a researcher on a long-term contract is worth more than the same researcher on a short-term contract. (For details of this plan, see here.) We call upon HEFCE to implement such an incentive.

3 thoughts on “The REF and temporary staff

  1. It’s quite true that there is a serious problem in the UK with short-term positions. And it’s also quite true that the REF is gameable by entering people just around the census deadline. (Whether this *actually* happens with short-term staff is less clear to me.) But I’m not sure the connection is as clear as this petition suggests or that the petition’s strategy would help.

    For one thing, not all short-term positions are created equal. In the sciences in particular, the postdoc model is very hard to do without, not least because research is a large-team-based activity. (I think the petition’s host site concerns itself primarily with the humanities, in particular classics.) Even in the humanities there is a world of difference between (say) a three-year Oxbridge early-career fellowship with a fairly light teaching load, and a one-year 15-hours-a-week teaching-cover job. In my view the Humanities in the UK badly need more well-structured fixed-term early-career positions – as it is, the combination of the UK’s fairly short PhDs and the UK’s lack of something like a tenure track means that the gap between PhD completion and a permanent job is getting hard to fill. This proposal disincentives creating any such position, because they wouldn’t be REF-able to the same degree as currently.

    For another, the economics doesn’t really add up. Again in the humanities, the payout for Oxford faculties per REF-entered staff member was, last time around, something around £20K-£25K p/a. Even a short-term person costs more than that once on-costs and infrastructure charges are allowed for; a permanent person costs *much* more than that. The reason it might be profitable for universities to surge short-term staff around the census deadline is that you pay that person’s salary for only 1-2 years, whereas you get the REF money for six or seven. But no long-term position even comes close to paying for itself via REF income in the humanities. So the result of the proposed change would be to eliminate those short-term positions, but it wouldn’t thereby create new long-term positions.

    I’ll confess to not having a positive proposal for REF reform to avoid the gameability problem. From a purely theoretical basis it might be attractive to have REF money follow the individual – a short-term REF-entered person would suddenly be a much more attractive hire for the next six years. But (i) that then ties people’s careers to how well the REF assesses their own work in particular. And the REF is inevitably a bit noisy – noise that washes out to some degree at the whole-department level becomes a lot less tolerable when it directly affects individuals. (ii) there are huge implications for your career based on how close to the census deadline you graduate.

  2. Interesting thoughts, David.

    I haven’t heard of departments hiring temporary staff to boost REF results either (apart from the short term big names hires but those are different). But I assume that the author of the petition must know of this happening in order to have written it.

    I’m not sure that the figures need to add up in the way you suggest with a person’s salary all coming from ref to make this viable. One might think that some financial incentive from ref could motivate departments/universities to juggle their other finances to employ people on long term contracts if you see what I mean. For example: my department has employed someone on a short term contract every year to teach a couple of modules. That could be turned into a permanent post.

    I also wonder why there needs to be a class of jobs between PhD and permanent? I’d be interested to hear more from people on that score.

    I think the petition is worth supporting even if the suggested solution isn’t perfect because it’s important to get hefce talking and thinking about this stuff. Like you say, the situation re short term contracts in humanities is dire and anything that can be done to get people discussing it seems like a good plan.

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