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11th October 2018

Universities target ‘superstar’ professors in bid to boost research rankings

Big-name professors are being recruited in a ‘transfer-market’ like system, according to new research on the impact of government research rankings
Universities target ‘superstar’ professors in bid to boost research rankings
Marco Antonio Torres @ Flickr

Universities in the UK are recruiting elite professors with the lure of higher pay in order to scale research league tables, it has been found.

A paper presented to the Economic Policy Panel in Vienna made the claims in reference to the Government’s Research Excellence Framework (REF), an impact evaluation programme that attempts to assess the accountability of public investment in research, and can also be used to make funding recommendations.

The paper was authored by three economists based at the University of Nottingham, who aimed to demonstrate how the programme had led to a skewing in university recruitment.

Led by John Gathergood, the investigation focused on the variation of 16,300 professors’ salaries across a three-year period, starting in 2013. Findings suggested that an increase in average research quality, measured by GPA, correlated with pay rises for institution’s most prestigious and prolific professors. The paper claimed that senior professors were able to earn up to seven times the amount of counterparts who were new to the job, on the nationally-agreed salary minimum.

This kind of activity has been likened to the recruitment of expensive footballers in the Premier League, as institutions with higher budgets are increasingly becoming able to poach academic staff at the top of their fields, with lucrative contract offers. Gathergood and his colleagues further argued that such a market has been facilitated by the ability to transfer the university affiliation of research, creating a ‘transfer-market’ like structure of higher education recruitment.

The REF framework itself functions strongly on a reputation-basis and its use for funding recommendations has been seen to drive institutions to headhunt in order to secure the hosting of world-class research projects and academics.  This was reflected in the University of Nottingham trio’s conclusions – that appeared to show that departments with the most unequal levels of pay were often those that performed the best in the REF’s assessment.

The report raises concern over the apparent introduction of economically-motivated competition in the UK university system, saying that, “Whilst individual UK academics and administrators will no doubt find these results of much interest, they warrant wider attention, as they contain important lessons on the effects of liberalising pay and introducing competition for resources in a largely publicly funded system.”

This adds to a long-running debate over the marketisation of higher education, with increasing concerns that students are being relegated to consumer status, as other issues, such as research financing, are prioritised. Indeed, the concept of ‘superstar’ professors appears to suggest a substantial interest in scaling research tables and boosting academic reputations in the rapidly-growing pool of competitive UK universities.

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