The Scandal of Research Assessment and Insecure Employment at Our Universities

By Sarah Wells, Glasgow

As the current academic term ends and studies conclude for another generation of undergraduate students, work carries on for the thousands of staff employed at universities and higher education colleges across the country. Just last year, figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency, analysed and released by UCU, revealed the true precarious conditions many of these workers face. During the period 2014-15 HESA states that on average 53% of all teaching and teaching/research academic staff were employed on an insecure basis, including casual worker contracts with hourly paid rates and fewer rights and protections, through to zero-hours contracts and temp agency work. Most shocking was the shameful revelation that the “worst offenders” were within the UK’s Russell Group; with an average of 59% of staff at these elite research-intensive universities employed on insecure contracts. During this period, Scotland’s Russell Group members, the Universities of Edinburgh and Glasgow, employed 67% and 49% of their teaching and teaching/research staff on temporary or “atypical” contracts, respectively – despite both committing to increased tuition fees for international students and the latter undertaking a huge £775 million campus expansion plan.
Although the resulting backlash has driven many campuses to strive to eradicate this “Sports Direct model” of employment, such campaigns can only help to temporarily alleviate the symptoms of a far more fundamental problem, unresolvable so long as the education system continues as a mere instrument of profit in the capitalist system. UK universities depend on public funds to run, and therefore must demonstrate that they are a worthwhile investment, generating strong, high quality research. This research assessment, and hence the allocation of nearly £2 billion of annual funding to UK universities, has been carried out every 5-7 years since 1986 by REF – the Research Excellence Framework. It is ideally a tool for the unbiased analysis of research “outputs”, driving a commitment to excellence and transparency. However, as announcements are expected imminently for the proposed changes to the next REF, 2021, the fallout is still occurring from REF 2014.
Its critics are far ranging, from those who see it a as a bloated tool of bureaucracy, a “Minotaur that must be appeased by bloody sacrifices”, to a hypocritical system that is there to be played, driving a vicious culture of fear and blackmail. This game-playing to succeed in REF meant it was used as a management tool, driving a frenzy of hirings and firings. The technicalities of REF allowed institutions to submit the previous work of new staff members, with universities attempting to scoop up researchers of high status from other institutions, often hiring them on insecure contracts dependent on the outcome of their REF report. Researchers employed on short-term contracts of as little as a single day a week could be included. As only those staff members on research contracts were assessed, workers with chances of giving a less favourable REF report could be forced onto teaching-only contracts to selectively hide their outputs. There were countless accusations of ghost-writing of papers and research impact reports, as well as tailoring of publication dates and prestigious authorship placements.
This outcry has resulted in numerous research council reviews, a parliamentary bill and finally an independent review by Lord Stern. Although some suggested changes are mostly welcomed, such as the call for an inclusion of a measure of research impact on the public, many fear that others will still allow it to be used as a tool of fear against academic workers. For instance there is no guarantee that a move towards a more flexible assessment of all research-active staff will reduce gaming and unfair treatment of employees when the time comes for REF submission. The majority of academic research staff already face a career where insecurity is seen as the norm, and as the build up to REF 2021 continues there is the risk of even further instability and uncertainty. The rules for REF 2021 have yet to be announced but, despite any safeguards against this culture of gaming the system, it will be the workers at the bottom of the academic hierarchy who will bear the brunt of the clambering for reputation, status and funding.
As universities and colleges face cut after cut in public spending, with workers burdened with both rising workloads and falling pay and security, the effect on student education is clear, all while tuition fees continue to rise and prospects of better employment following graduation fall. What is required is true democratic control of academic research institutions, with universities and colleges ran for the better development of individuals and society as part of a planned economy, not for profit

May’s Snap Election: A Marxist View

Ross Walker, IMT Edinburgh

“She is clearly betting that the Tories can win a bigger majority in England given the utter disarray in the Labour Party. That makes it all the more important that Scotland is protected from a Tory Party which now sees the chance of grabbing control of government for many years to come and moving the UK further to the right – forcing through a hard Brexit and imposing deeper cuts in the process.”

Nicola Sturgeon responding to Theresa May’s call for an election.

Continue reading “May’s Snap Election: A Marxist View”

Fight Trump! Fight Capitalism!

Later this month Donald Trump will become the 45th President of the United States. His racism and misogyny during his candidacy have already made him a feared and unpopular figure across much of the world. Of course, this is nothing particularly new in Scotland where Trump and his golf courses have been causing controversy for a number of years.
Trump bought the land for his first golf course in Aberdeenshire back in 2005. It did not open till 2012 due to several objections from the local community surrounding environmental impact and its affecting their quality of life. In fact the plan required the support of the SNP government in 2007 in order to go ahead.
Since then relations between Trump and the SNP have somewhat soured. Trump and Salmond’s war of words on twitter culminated in Trump stating that Salmond “may be the dumbest leader of the free world”. He has also had his GlobalScot business ambassador status removed by present First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon.
Where was all the love lost? Primarily through the issue of wind farms. Plans to extend the golf course in Aberdeen were halted by a proposed wind farm in the vicinity of the area. Trump attempted to prevent the wind farm – which he felt would be an eyesore – from being built through a number of legal actions, culminating in taking his case to the UK Supreme Court. He was unsuccessful. Nevertheless, this has not stopped him from buying another Scottish golf course.
Trump’s complete lack of regard for the importance of the environment and wishes of local people have been shown in his comments around the legal challenge and also his responses to questions at a Holyrood inquiry. He has repeatedly ignored the importance of reducing CO2 emissions, describing targets as “phoney” and “absolutely ridiculous”. Rather than appreciating the importance of maintaining the environment he has argued that business and profit making are what matter, stating that wind farms will only succeed in bringing down Scotland’s economy.
Trump’s position on wind farms is hardly surprising given he has previously referred to climate change as a “hoax” and currently plans to reduce funding for climate research. As socialists we understand the link between rising CO2 emissions and capitalism. Profit motivated big business owners like Donald Trump are simply more interested in their money in the bank than the future of the environment. It is key that we understand that it is through socialism and planning the economy for the needs of all rather than the short-term profits of the few that we can overcome the threat of climate change.
Many were justifiably angry and upset when Trump came to power, but now is not the time to mourn but to organise. Trump’s victory was based on the failure of lesser-evil liberalism, which has been increasingly exposed by the global financial crisis. Now is the time to fight back with socialist answers, as has already been shown in protests across America. Here in Scotland we can help through solidarity protests, including protesting Trump’s business ventures and anti-environmentalism here.

Open Borders Now! The EU referendum, xenophobia, and the free movement of peoples

“We don’t have a say in the referendum, but the politicians and press talk about us as if we are an underclass who cannot read – and it’s terrifying”

 A Polish journalist based in London, Jacob Krupa expresses feelings shared by many EU migrants in the run up to June’s Brexit referendum. Continue reading “Open Borders Now! The EU referendum, xenophobia, and the free movement of peoples”