Thursday, June 01, 2006

The university exam boycott, top-up fees and the research assessment exercise

Sorry. This post is a bit niche.

This issue has been bothering me for some time, and I need to get it out of my system. During this dispute, the AUT/NATHFE action has been discussed in the context of the introduction of top-up fees in England and Wales (and the compensatory funding for Scotland), and not in the context of the Research Assessment Exercise, which is used to quantify research quality in the higher education institutions of the UK. See here for an example - the discussion of both the boycott and the future of the RAE at the AUT conference earlier in May. The claim to redress historic underfunding of academic salaries in the university sector has already been discussed here on this blog (see in particular the contributions from RoadRunner in the comments section), along with the 'morality' of taking action which affects students.

I was thinking we were likely to get an offer earlier this week which would be acceptable - probably a two figure offer over two years, and an agreement to look favourably again in 2008-2009 when the impact of three years worth of top-up fees in the system is looking clearer. Unfortunately this has not been forthcoming, and a slightly improved offer of 13.1% over three years appears to have been rejected out of hand by AUT/NATFHE, in particular because it offers nothing better for 2008-2009. I make no comment on this except to say that given that VCs were bleating about a previous *final* offer being at the limits of affordability (while remaining well below the annual increases that many of them have trousered year on year), it is a little less than convincing when a higher offer is made, again at the *limits* of affordability. So which one was at the limits of affordability? You get the gist: people start to believe that if there is another 0.5%, then there might be a little more in the system. Who knows? I think reactions to this have to be read in the light of what I suggest here.

VCs would say that their increases have been justified on the basis of productivity and performance, and because there is a lively, if niche, market for the best VCs. In a way, the same can be said for many academic staff. Since I joined the academic profession, something over 20 years, promotion prospects have accelerated massively, especially in shortage subjects like law or economics. People reach the "pinnacle" of the profession - a chair - much, much earlier on the whole than they used to do. Whereas 20 years ago, the "career grade", i.e. that which all reasonably successful academics could aspire to, was the senior lectureship. Today, in many, if not most, subjects, it is the chair. To put it another way, academics in many subjects have offset the effects of the gradual downgrading of pay scales by moving more rapidly up them, or by negotiating individual settlements on the basis of the mysterious arrangements that universities have for professors, once they reach that level.

This has not worked for everyone, not because those people are poor academics, but because they prioritise some values (e.g. family life) over a willingness to work very unsocial hours to finish all the work they have before them or a willingness to move institution (which historically has been the best way of pushing your way up the pay scale). In addition, there are some subjects where the market forces which apply in law or econonomics or management studies just don't apply in the same way. There are also some who are in secondary labour markets on serial short term contracts, who never ever get annual increments. And finally there are the new starters, who find that the starting salary for an academic falls further and further behind those, for example, of teachers, who frankly won't have done the years of training (minimum 3 year UG degree; 1 year Masters; 3 year PhD) which a lecturer starting out will have done. And that is without mentioning those on academic related scales, who are not involved in research, and are therefore unable to use the market forces argument of moving their labour and their publications and grant income to another university.

What has happened is greater inequality across disciplines, and a massive stretching out of the pay scales from the top points which some professors might expect to get paid, versus the rates of pay for lecturers just starting out, or many many contract researchers. That is pretty obvious if you look at the charts which appear periodically in the Times Higher Education Supplement under which Universities not only declare how much their VCs earn, but also declare how many staff they pay £120+, £100+ and £80+. It's illuminating, believe me, even if you factor in the medical academics who are in an entirely different stratosphere to us ordinary mortals.

So....before I lose you completely....where does the RAE come into this? Well, because I have a hunch that VCs are hanging on to at least some of their pennies, unwilling to commit them to a national settlement which will benefit everyone (and remember this is already basically a percentage based settlement which benefits those on higher wages than those at the bottom, although there are some minimums built in at the bottom to protect the absolutely worst paid) in order to buy off the relatively few. In the last RAE, which concluded in 2001, there was a date some eighteen months before the so-called census date (which is the date when you do a count up of every one in your institution who is research active and who can count for the purposes of measuring how much research income should come to the department or school) after which those who moved to another university basically counted half for that university, and half for the previous university. That was, in my view, a fair arrangement. If you lost key staff eighteen months before the census date, you could at least make a fair stab at recruiting new people, even though it would usually cost you more to recruit them than the cost of those who left. So it was already market forces in action, but constrained by the sharing rule. You can find the details here, at para. 3.8, so-called A* staff. For this RAE, there is no such rule. See here (pdf file). It does not say explicitly that the rules are different, but because there is no mention of any A* staff, we know that the sharing rule is not applying.

So...what do you think is happening? If universities risk losing key staff, and all their publications (but not at least their accrued grant income), at any point right up to the census date (31 October 2007), then there is obviously going to be a problem. There is no chance at that point of recruiting to replace key staff. A department's, and indeed a whole university's, research profile could go down in the pan if another university swoops in to poach the best staff at the last minute. And who has paid for these staff right throughout the previous six years, the reference period during which publications are developed which are the basis for the future funding for the next six years or so? Not the new employer, that's for sure. Remember, such staff might have been given special study leaves or grants in order to allow them to finish important projects to generate publications. In my own subject, I can already see that not only are institutions alive to these possibilities and dangers, but individuals are as well. Universities may have to react defensively and offer very substantial pay rises to individuals to stop them leaving. Then others will complain, of course, about equity, and so they will also need financial placating. And so on, and so on.

All of which leads me to conclude that the rule devised by the Higher Education Funding Councils for the 2007/2008 RAE is having a negative impact upon the available funding for paying all university staff in the 2006-2009 pay negotiation round. Once again, the money is likely to go to the few, and those in secondary labour markets or less fashionable disciplines will bear the brunt.

I thought from the start, when the RAE rules for this time round were announced, that it was a stupid rule. I made enquiries of a friend who is on an assessment panel this time round, and who was also on a panel last time, and it was intimated to me that there were administrative problems with running it last time and that's why the sharing rule was not used this time round.

The administrative tail is wagging the market dog. And it is one of the important unspoken contexts of the divisive action we are seeing at present. If people addressed this issue directly, perhaps we might more readily find solutions to the dispute between the unions and the employers.

Update 3pm Budapest time
If you have got this far then you are obviously interested in the content of this post, which means that you might be able to answer this question. I got a sudden spike of visitors from academic domains between 10am and 11am this morning, but none of them have a referring URL. Usually other spikes can be explained by appearing in google searches, which appear on the visitor stats as the referring URL. Has the URL of this blog post gone round on an email to AUT activists and if so, can someone please tell me what you think of it. Not one of these academic visitors made a comment. Most un-blog-friendly.


Anonymous TheJudge said...

I'm sure there's some truth in what you suggest. It would be interesting to see if the more 'hard-line' VCs who influence UCEA most are those with highly rated research departments.

Friday, June 02, 2006  

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