‘Raising the Bar’ causes concerns amongst staff

An anonymous contact has alerted The Courier to raising concerns regarding staff redundancies as a result of the University-wide initiative ‘Raising the Bar’.

The Research and Innovation Performance policy, put together during the summer, proposes a more focused approach in order to achieve better academic results in University research.

“The UCU, representing the academic staff of Newcastle University, are very much in favour of making Newcastle University a better place and doing even more of the excellent research that we already do,” Bruce Baker, a UCU officer, told The Courier. “We differ strongly, however, with the university managers about how best to accomplish this.  The UCU believes that an academic institution should base its practices on collegiality and the fundamental principle of shared governance, that the academic business of a university is properly directed by the academics themselves, with the managers to help put the will of the University–that is to say, the academics and the students–into effect.”

According to Baker, the crafting of the Research and Innovation Performance Expectations policy did not involve any University academics. Instead, it was authored by University managers and only presented to academics at the beginning of this year.

“We believe that the union was not consulted on something which constitutes a fundamental change to the nature of the employment relationship between our staff and the University, but more importantly, we do not believe that the way the RIPE policy was put through Senate was handled appropriately either,” Baker said.  “Senate in effect was told to sign a blank cheque.  It raises serious concerns about the governance of the institution.

“Our members are justifiably concerned for their jobs and their livelihoods.  While the original RIPE documents were vague about how the expectations would be implemented, we have had some clarity in documents tabled by the university managers in the course of our discussions over the past few weeks.  The bottom line is that they propose to use capability procedures to deal with those who are deemed to not meet these requirements.”

In the last few meetings with UCU members, University management have tabled a Memorandum of Understanding, in order to make the key features of the policy clearer.

“During our discussions with representatives of the University and College Union (the UCU) it was proposed that a Memorandum of Understanding be drawn up to set the context of Raising the Bar and lay out our key points of agreement,” a spokesperson of the University said. “The MoU has yet to be officially agreed but it is intended to reinforce the need for us all to work together for the good of the institution.”

However, the UCU still fundamentally disagrees with the policy, according to Baker: “Our key objection here is that the university managers have unilaterally, with no consultation with the union, with no process of consultation with the academics themselves, redefined what it means to be an academic, setting a bar so high that few will be able to meet the requirements and thus putting the vast majority of the academics at Newcastle University in a position where they could lose their jobs through capability procedures.”

Word of the policy has sifted through down to the student population as well. Beth Watt, the creator of Facebook page Newcastle University Students Against Raising the Bar, spoke to The Courier about this recent development: “I feel in equal part relieved that in light of the campaign and The Courier’s reporting that more staff are feeling comfortable enough to come forward anonymously and speak out, and horrified at what they are exposing, though sadly it’s nothing I hadn’t already assumed was happening. With the student campaign I have endeavoured to highlight to the student body the risks posed to staff wellbeing with the added stress on performance and specifically overachievement, but that staff who are deemed to be “incapable” of meeting these unrealistic and damaging standards are now explicitly facing redundancy is disgusting.”

Beth also commented on the last article The Courier did on the initiative: “Though in the last article a spokesperson for the University rationalised the initiative in terms of improving university rankings, it seems they have forgotten how large a part student satisfaction plays in these surveys. If staff are consistently pressured to jump through hoops of red tape and draw in potentially unreasonable amounts of funding, the time they devote to teaching, researching teaching, and supporting students will take a huge hit if they are to maintain a healthy work/life balance.”

The tabled Memorandum of Understanding contained the following clause, which has been outlined by an anonymous contact as a cause for concern among staff: “The formal capability procedure will be used to support staff to meet the requirements of [Raising the Bar]. It is intended to provide a framework to seek to improve performance in the first instance. Only in circumstances where [there] is [no] reasonable prospect of the staff member meeting the expectations will a capability hearing be necessary.”

The University spokesperson gave some clarity surrounding the clause: “We will be assessing the appropriate support needed by each member of academic staff through their normal performance and development review (PDR). This system of review will allow staff to discuss any concerns and access the necessary support.

“We have developed a “Research Expectations” document to use as a guide both for staff undergoing PDR and those doing it. It is a set of reference points for them to use when they talk holistically about a staff member’s performance. It does not herald some new system of target-driven management.  Based on our current analysis we estimate that around 83% of staff are currently “on track” to meet the research expectations and we hope that, with the support we are making available, the majority of the remainder will do so in due course.

“A number of different schemes are being put in place to support the Raising the Bar programme.  Funding is being made available to recruit senior academic staff and improve research facilities and premises. This is supplemented by a Research Excellence Support Scheme which is designed to enhance the performance and aspirations of individual academics across the University by  providing them with quick access to funds to cover a range of costs related to their research as well as attending conferences and taking sabbaticals. An additional £13m is being made available to support the recruitment of PhD students and early career researchers.”

The UCU will keep up the fight: “It is an appalling policy, and it is already doing severe damage to the reputation of Newcastle University, which is very dear to the academic staff and students,” Bruce Baker said. “We will fight this policy until it is withdrawn.”

The council will be lobbying on 14 December at 1:15 outside King’s Gate. According to information provided by the UCU, 90 professors have signed a statement against the research expectations document and Newcastle University’s Vice-Chancellor Professor Chris Brink will meet with them to address their concerns.

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