Last week it was revealed that all professors who are not in management roles will have to reapply for their jobs. The outcry on social media from fellow academics and through the hashtag #TeessideProfs has been resounding. In the spirit of solidarity with our colleagues and as a warning to other universities considering similar action, we are looking to pen an open letter to Teesside University to be published in Times Higher Education. This letter will condemn these actions, call for their immediate delay and re-evaluation, question their rationale and also problematise the broader treatment of workers in higher education. Please see the full letter below.
We are looking to attach as many signatures of support from university academics as possible. If you want to attach your name to this letter, please comment below with your title, name and affiliation. Thanks in advance for your support.
Teesside University have recently announced that all professors who are not in management roles will have to reapply for their jobs. This action taken by the university essentially places the 27 professors at risk of redundancy. What were promised as permanent and secure positions have now been rendered precarious.
This is an open letter to Teesside University that condemns these plans, questions the legitimacy of their rationale, and calls for their immediate delay and thorough re-evaluation. It is signed and supported by academics from dozens of higher education institutions, expressing solidarity with our professorial colleagues impacted by the proposed exercise.
Teesside University have made it clear through their public statements that this is not a cost-cutting exercise. Nor have they intimated that they regard their professors as ‘underperforming’. The official rationale driving this action is to ‘improve performance’ in the upcoming Research Excellence Framework (REF) exercise in 2021; in addition to bringing the ‘disparate roles’ of university professors under one role of ‘Professor (Research)’.
This seems curious for a number of reasons. In REF 2014, Teesside University displayed a marked overall improvement in their research performance. Moreover, particular departments and submissions were assessed as being among the best in the UK, such as the Social Policy and Social Work unit of assessment (UoA). 90% of the work submitted was considered ‘world leading’ and ‘internationally excellent’—the two highest rankings in this measure. Consequently, Teesside’s Social Policy and Social Work UoA—which included work from the disciplines of sociology, criminology, social work and social policy—was ranked 5th out of 62 in the UK for the quality of their submission. This is a remarkable achievement for any department in a post-1992 university.
The professors who will be forced to reapply for their own jobs were a vital part of this success in REF 2014. The professors in question do not occupy ‘disparate roles’, as all are research-active. Given the quality and quantity of the work they have produced since REF 2014, there is little reason to believe this performance could not be matched or bettered in REF 2021. Furthermore, these professors have been integral to the development of early career academics who will be submitting to REF 2021, in addition to the recruitment of postgraduate research students who contribute to the overall research culture at the institution. In light of these facts, it appears that the rationale driving this exercise makes little sense.
It should be made clear: The proposed plans from Teesside University should not be read or described as just another routine performance review. Lecturers, senior lecturers and professors at universities are already submitted to existing annual performance and development reviews. These plans are different. These plans threaten people’s livelihoods. They do so with minimal warning or discussion, and with a sense of confusion and ambiguity around what the criteria for the new role of Professor (research) means in real terms.
To us, the timing of this action seems bizarrely thoughtless and ignorant to the annual work-cycle in academia. At this time of year, many academics, including professors, will be preparing to take annual leave or beginning their summer research. However, as individual livelihoods and financial security are brought into question, such plans will have to be scrapped as those affected are forced to hurriedly seek union representation in addition to financial and legal advice.
With seemingly little warning, the individuals affected by this make-or-break audit are faced with the daunting possibility of unemployment and the task of quickly securing another position in a highly competitive job-market. If they cannot find jobs in a similar region they will have to potentially move houses, pull children out of schools and move their families.
However, while this letter is a condemnation of this specific action, there is also a broader issue at stake here. This exercise appears indicative of a more pervasive trend within UK Higher Education institutions to flexibilise their workforce and systematically engender an unnecessary sense of insecurity and precariousness within the higher education workplace.
The protests earlier this year by outsourced cleaners employed by the London School of Economics is an example from the opposite end of the HE employment spectrum. Those cleaners had to strike for the right to be paid the minimum London Living Wage and achieve basic parity around issues of sick pay and annual leave. We are all aware that, for several years, growing proportions of lecturers and academic staff are employed on insecure zero-hour contracts. The Teesside professors are merely the latest example of an embedded trend within the marketised higher education environment.
At their best, universities can be dynamic, critical and innovative environments which are the foremost champions of issues around social justice or basic workers’ rights. They are committed to enriching society and the lives of those in the communities they serve. This sentiment is even embedded in the Teesside University mission statement.
What happened to that ethos? Has the competitiveness and marketization of the Higher Education system become so ruthless and intense that institutions are willing to abandon these basic principles and place their employees into professional, personal and financial insecurity?
We, the signatories, call for Teesside University to immediately delay this exercise in order to properly re-evaluate the decision to make non-managerial professors re-apply for their jobs and engage in meaningful discussion with the University and College Union. We demand that the university provide a more transparent, comprehensive and detailed explanation of the rationale for this action. As academics employed as lecturers, researchers and professors at dozens of universities, we give warning to other institutions that similar action will not be accepted quietly and will not come without risk of reputational damage. Lastly, we express our solidarity and support of the professors affected at Teesside University.