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Some Opinions on the Situation at Queen's University, Belfast
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The Independent Online
I am responding to the letter of 3 September entitled "Unfair to Academics", signed by members of staff at Queen's University, Belfast, about steps to restructure and revitalise the university.

Queen's is a major regional university which aspires to international standards in teaching and research. Since the results of the UK-wide 1992 Research Assessment Exercise were known, and following the outcome of the 1996 Research Assessment Exercise, several reviews have been undertaken.

The most extensive of these was last year's Strategic Review of the University's activities, size and direction. The current radical reshaping of our academic subject areas and staffing has been based on the work undertaken during this review.

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, with Queen's placed in the top 30 per cent of universities in the UK-wide Teaching Quality Assessment process.

In the 1996 Research Assessment Exercise, only 74 per cent of the University's academic staff were considered worthy of submission, and Queen's was placed 49th out of the 102 universities in the resulting league table.

Comparable civic universities in Great Britain, against which we compete directly for funds, typically included between 80 and 95 per cent of their academic staff. The Universities of Sheffield, Manchester and Leeds, for instance, submitted 85, 91 and 88 per cent of their staff respectively and were placed 19th, 23rd and 25th. Since research income for the five years from 1996/7 is based on this performance, and since such funding is made on a per capita basis, its importance could hardly be exaggerated: the relative weakness of Queen's in some areas of research has resulted in a substantial loss of income.

The University's management is, of course, acutely aware that staff make an invaluable contribution through their dedication to teaching. This is, however, not sufficient on its own. Furthermore, there is no evidence to support the commonly held prejudice that staff who make a substantial contribution to research do so by neglecting their teaching.

The term "balanced excellence", introduced to the University by Professor George Bain, our new vice-chancellor, signifies the balance between teaching and research which is essential if a university is to achieve success in these ruthlessly competitive times.

Contributions to the administration and management of the university, though essential, cannot be regarded as alternatives to research activity. It is, in fact, conspicuous that the great majority of the staff who carry the heaviest burdens of administration and management - heads of school, deans and pro-vice-chancellors - have remained active in research.

The university's new plan will bring the discontinuation of teaching in a small number of subjects which are no longer viable, and will offer generous premature retirement and severance packages to members of academic staff who are unable to meet our new criteria for performance in research. We shall be investing pounds 25m during the next four years. Some pounds 13m of this will be for new staff, and some pounds 6.6m for premature retirement and severance.

The report containing these recommendations was approved by the Senate (the University's governing body) on 2 June, without a single vote being cast against it.

The university can best show the courage recommended by your correspondents in the last sentence of their letter by implementing this plan swiftly and effectively, but with all possible sensitivity. This is precisely what we intend to do.



The Queen's University of Belfast.

Queen's has fallen for the Research Assessment trap - hook, line and sinker. In particular, management has become fixated on the Government's Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) in 2001, to the virtual exclusion of all other considerations. And all this at a time when the value and validity of the RAE itself is the subject of intense critical debate in the educational press.

It does not take much managerial nous to realise that any organisation's performance on any measure can be inflated through the expedient of sacking 107 people who are deemed, however speciously, to be below average on that measure. Never mind the baby, such an approach amounts to throwing baby and bath out with the bath water, and risks eroding the longer-term strength of the university in all its facets, including research.

Undoubtedly, Queen's desire to improve the quality of its research is genuine and entirely welcome. However, management should recognise that it cannot be achieved through the present flawed process, at least not if the improvement is to be real, sustainable and in the broader interests of the university.

The university should have the courage to reconsider its strategy. Abandon the crash diet.

Shred the list of targeted staff. Apologise for the hurt caused and start again. End the fixation with RAE 2001 and instead manage the research process with longer term, sustainable objectives which are in harmony with the university's other vital functions of teaching, broader scholarship, administration and community service.


Senior Lecturer

School of Psychology

Queen's University, Belfast

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