UCU helps Newcastle University raise the bar

Newcastle University University and College Union (UCU) branch has released a report describing how, through a successful but “painful” campaign that ended in a marking boycott, it convinced university management to drop a top-down and coercive performance management system called ‘Raising the Bar’ in favour of a “collaborative, bottom-up approach to improving research”.

Significantly for higher education activists and trade unionists, through the dispute Newcastle UCU showed that “academic staff are intrinsically motivated to perform well”. The “Newcastle experience” – backed up by a “substantive body of research” – forcefully points to the fact “that attempts to extrinsically motivate those who are already intrinsically motivated, is counterproductive because it actually produces a reduction in overall motivation and job satisfaction”.

According to the report, ‘Raising the Bar’ (RTB) was Newcastle University management’s attempt to “‘game’ key metric exercises of the REF and international reputational league tables”. The report describes how management introduced “targeted” Units of Assessment deemed “best-placed” to rise up the tables and introduced an ‘Outcomes-Based Management’ (OBPM) system, which attempted to “embed a range of ‘Research and Performance Expectations’ (RiPE) targets in personnel management”.

“It was this second aspect of RTB that was the most controversial,” Newcastle UCU reported, “leading to widespread divisive unhappiness, upset and opposition, culminating in industrial action taken by UCU in June 2016.” Newcastle UCU’s ‘Action Short of a Strike’ (ASOS) took the form of a marking boycott, and was backed up by a “solidarity motion” passed at UCU Congress – which recognised the issue at Newcastle University as “a local dispute of national significance” – as well as a survey on change.org that gave the dispute international exposure,

The report recounts how, just as industrial action began in June that year, Newcastle University vice chancellor Chris Brink, with the support of the University’s Heads of Academic Units (HoAUs) and in negotiation with Newcastle UCU, “agreed to abandon RiPE and to ditch the RTB terminology”. In its place, a framework for a “common understanding in moving forwards” was agreed between the University and UCU: the ‘Academic Framework for Research Improvement’ (AFRI).

“This agreement recognises that funding structures mean it is necessary to be seen to perform well in what we accept are flawed and limited key metric tables,” the report said, “but that we seek to do that by improving research in a collegial and bottom-up, non-coercive manner.”

“It recognises that an uncritical focus on quantitative targets is ‘problematic’,” it added. “Scholarly ‘performance’ cannot be artificially managed by a topdown coercive tool, but research is to be improved by creating a conducive working environment to allow creativity, and recruit and retain staff.”

Newcastle UCU has made the full report available on its website, which goes on to describe the lessons learned from this successful dispute for management and UCU. The report is recommended reading for activists and trade unionists in higher education (HE), as such top-down and coercive performance management is becoming the norm in a sector besieged by market reform.

New vice chancellor Chris Day has also released a statement accepting all recommendations proposed by the Newcastle UCU report, which can be found here.

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