What is; happening at Queen's College Belfast?

Over 100 staff have been asked to go by the university, as part of a move to improve research assessment ratings and so attract more funding.
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The Independent Online
Attempts by Queen's University, Belfast to get rid of 107 academic staff - a tenth of its teaching strength - could degenerate into prolonged guerrilla warfare, according to some of those facing the UK's most extensive university restructuring plan.

Officials at the Association of University Teachers (AUT) guess that, by the end of this month, only a small proportion of those "invited" to leave will have taken up the redundancy/early retirement packages on offer. They suspect that persuading the rest to go could take years rather than the two terms envisaged by the university's management.

Under proposals approved by the academic council and Senate before the summer vacation, Queen's will cease to teach Italian, geology and Semitic studies, and move into areas such as drama, film and history of art. They propose to retain classics, although both teachers of Greek have been asked to go. Staff in the discontinued subjects face a "redundancy situation", according to the AUT.

The university is unmoved by claims by some staff that the change of emphasis will leave Northern Ireland's students without access to the discontinued subjects. Nor is it impressed by complaints that the new subject areas, which are undoubtedly popular with student applicants, duplicate courses offered by Ulster University, the province's only other university - something that the Dearing Report suggested was undesirable. The rest of the 107 targeted staff have been invited by letter to take voluntary severance on the basis of their likely performance - or lack of it - in the 2001 Research Assessment Exercise.

The rationale behind the plan, according to the pro-vice-chancellor, Professor Malcolm Andrew, is to improve the university's performance in the next RAE. Queen's undertook a major strategic review after its disappointing performance in the last RAE when, at 48th in the rankings, it lagged well behind some of the major regional universities, like Manchester and Sheffield, with which it compares itself. One of the reasons, the management argues, is that it entered only 74 per cent of its staff for assessment, while similar institutions put in between 85 and 90 per cent. Given the basis on which research is funded, this means a major loss of income for Queen's.

Professor Andrew says: "It became clear that Queen's has an outstanding reputation for research in some areas, but is relatively weak in others. The performance in teaching has been more consistent. Our goal is to achieve consistently high standards in research as well as teaching." Many of the 103 staff who signed last week's letter to The Independent complaining about the restructuring - only half of whom have been asked to leave - sympathise with the need to improve research performance. Their anger is directed at the scale of the exercise and at what they claim is the erratic way in which research performance appears to have been measured.

The consequence, according to Dr Maureen Alden, a lecturer in Greek, who has been asked to leave, is that all sense of trust between staff and management has been lost. She says she will not go willingly. She is particularly incensed at the number of colleagues eminent in their fields - her senior colleague teaching Greek, for instance, and a colleague due to become president of the British Psychological Association - who have been asked to go.

According to the protesters, different departments use different methods to compile reports on how research targets will be met: some, they suggest, base them on little more than casual conversations. Staff are also extremely resentful that words such as "ineffectual" and "relatively weak" are being used to describe many senior and long-serving staff who, they say, have contributed to excellence in teaching, administration and outside activities.

Management replies that such activities can no longer be regarded as alternatives to research activity. The "balanced excellence" which the new vice-chancellor, George Bain, formerly of the London Business School, wants to see, is interpreted as applying to all academic staff as individuals, rather than across departments.

Professor Andrew argues robustly that excellence in teaching and research are closely linked, and that it is essential for Queen's to do something to push up the proportion of staff entered for the RAE. "Excellence in teaching alone is not an alternative," he says, and he admits that the university may lose some excellent teachers in the restructuring process.

The targeted staff have been given until next Easter to make up their minds on the offer of severance terms, although the administration is hoping that the exercise will be complete by the end of the year. Those who resist and claim they can meet the new research criteria, he says, will be set targets and their progress monitored.

The AUT is much more sceptical that progress can be made so quickly, if at all. The university branch of the association has so far avoided outright confrontation over the plans, preferring to move more cautiously than some staff would like.

The university says that it will spend pounds 25m on the restructuring exercise, and appoint extra staff when the 107 have left. In addition, a higher research rating will bring in additional funds, all of which could improve the lives of those who stay.

But the AUT branch is advising people who do not want to go to say no and, if they are in any sense "research active", to seek a lighter administrative load or even sabbatical leave, so that they can meet the targets being set.

Given that some of those targeted have pre-1987 tenure, and that, traditionally, recruitment to Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK has been problematic, the chances of the plan's coming unstuck seem high. As Dr Maureen Alden says, a university that treats its staff in such a cavalier fashion will hardly seem attractive to bright young researchers, even if the political situation does improve.

The AUT also fears that some degree programmes may be jeopardised by the plans - and that if staff who have been encouraged or who have volunteered to take on administrative chores leave, others will be much more reluctant to pick up the burden in case it affects their research. Several sexual harassment counsellors, all of whom have been targeted, have already given up a sensitive chore.

Wider questions also arise if Belfast's example is followed, Queen's staff suggest. Where will the next generation of external examiners, journal editors and external committee members - the glue that hold the academic system together - come from, if such activities take time away from research, and that is penalised by research-income-hungry institutions?

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