Research policy prompts protest

Students rally against target focused research and teaching

Antonia Velikova
23rd November 2015

Students are preparing to rally and stand behind members of staff to oppose the ‘Raising the Bar’ initiative, claiming that it will be detrimental to student progress and experience.

The main arguments that students have against the initiative are that it will be detrimental for staff to be following an educational process which is focused on achieving certain targets, instead of concentrating on long-term ways to improve teaching and research.

“Pressures to produce more research are at the heart of this initiative, with additional pressures on increased teaching to come with the new Teaching Excellence Framework,” according to a statement issued on the Newcastle University Students Against ‘Raising the Bar’ Facebook page.

“At Newcastle University as elsewhere staff are already working more than the hours in preparing teaching, doing teaching, marking submissions, taking part in public engagement and impact activities, contributing to the administration of the University, and crucially doing the researching and writing which is vital to the kind of research-led training which distinguishes Newcastle as such a rich and excellent environment for both undergraduate and postgraduate students alike. Yet, Raising the Bar is asking them to do even more.”

MA student Beth Watt is the face behind the Facebook page.

Speaking to The Courier, she explained the implications of Raising the Bar on Newcastle University and why students should offer support to staff on this important issue.

“Essentially what the issue is, and what we’re protesting against as students, is that the initiative doesn’t only have a negative effect on our education, but also upon the lives of those who provide it. If the lecturers who teach us are expected to pull in vastly higher sums of money in research grants, they’re either doing more work outside of paid hours, or sacrificing work in other areas, such as teaching or preparation,” she explained.

“The obvious result is that they get less time to put together modules, to give pastoral care to students, and to participate in public engagement and impact activities, but what’s paramount is the concern that this additional and extraneous pressure will in turn impact negatively on their lives, their careers, and their mental wellbeing.”

Initiatives like Raising the Bar are already in place in several public services, like the NHS, and are being run in some universities in the country.

Newcastle University staff, and the students who support them, believe that the initiative places pressure on staff to perform and that holds many risks to both their teaching quality and mental health.

“Raising the Bar has created huge levels of stress and upset amongst academic staff across all three Faculties,” a member of University staff, who wished to remain anonymous, told The Courier.

“Newcastle University undertook a survey on staff stress levels several years ago and the results showed that many staff were experiencing high levels of stress - well, it has just multiplied that by a hundred times over.

“Staff are already working 60-70 hours a week - and now they are being set targets which will require them to work 100+ weeks.  This is simply not tenable - and the bottom line is that people will leave.  In droves.”

Being a part of the Russell Group, Newcastle prides itself on the quality and amount of academic research, and its implication in teaching modules.

A spokesperson of the University commented: “Over recent years the Higher Education sector has become far more globally competitive, where the various league tables and rankings now have a greater influence on students, the sponsors of our students and staff who want to work here.

“Unfortunately, Newcastle University’s position in some of the world rankings has fallen and this is having a direct impact on us. For example, some international governments and businesses will only sponsor students to go to universities who are in the Top 200 of the main international rankings.

“While rankings are not an exact science, the underlying fact is that if a university’s quality improves and they gain a better reputation as a result, then they will move up the league tables.

“That is why it’s in all our interests that we try to improve what we do and is why we have launched the ‘Raising the Bar’ programme.”

The initiative forms part of the new Teaching Excellence Framework, aimed at improving research at universities.

The spokesperson continued: “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 £13 million is being made available to support the recruitment of PhD students and early career researchers.

“We will be assessing the appropriate support needed by each member of academic staff through their normal performance and development review. This system of review involves staff identifying measurable targets and has been in place for over ten years.

“The University’s reputation ultimately depends on performance against external competition and we all need to work together as a team to improve our position.”

There have been talks within many University departments and a public event happening next Wednesday at 5pm in Hershel Building, Lecture Theatre 1. The event, called ‘Raising the bar? Why we should resist target culture’ with guest speakers Liz Morrish, blogger at Academic Irregularities and John Holmwood, Professor of Sociology at Nottingham University, is open to all students and staff of the University. Beth pointed out that attendance at those events would give students a better, clearer picture of the initiative, and outline their reasons for rallying against it.

“It would mean so much to staff to know that students support them on this,” the member of staff added. “We need to be clear that there are two kinds of staff involved in this activity - there are the management positions who do not teach or research, but who set targets and monitor performance, and then are the multitude of staff with whom students have interactions every day - teaching, researching, sharing ideas, exciting one another with debate and dialogue.

“It is this latter group of activities which is the lifeblood of the University.  What is really at the heart of this is what a university is for - and while lecturers understand that a university cannot operate in a vacuum, it is vital that the fact that teaching and research are at the heart of what students and staff are doing.”

According to them, the major drawback of the initiative will be that members of staff will seek employment elsewhere: “Look to the primary/secondary education sector or to the NHS as examples of fields which have been nearly destroyed by the introduction of target-based performance management models.  People are leaving these fields in droves and the same will happen in universities.

“We have always had targets, but this top-down model, which is using a model deemed outmoded in the business world some 20 years ago, is very problematic.  The intention is to ensure that Newcastle is in the group of top universities in the world - what will happen is that colleagues will leave for other institutions.”

Beth said that, at the moment, there is not much students can do but get acquainted with the initiative and realise its implications.

“Hopefully mid-December, there will be a rally,” she said. “Essentially, the mission statement of the group is that we need to stand in solidarity with those who show solidarity to us on a daily basis, whether that’s in the care and the teaching they provide us, or the hours that they devote to their own research and fostering the unique academic environment particular to Newcastle, which makes our student experience so exceptional.”

The member of staff pointed out: “We ask that students ask staff what Raising the Bar is - and what they can do to support academic staff in their rebuttals of Raising the Bar.

“We also encourage students to talk to their parents so that they know about what is going on - this is a fight for the very notion of what a university is for, and this has national and international repercussions.”

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