British universities are imitating Premier League football clubs by poaching “superstar” talent, rewarding an elite group of professors with higher pay in order to boost their research rankings, according to a study.
The research by a trio of economists at the University of Nottingham found the government’s research excellence framework (REF) – which rates departments by academic publications and impact – appears to have skewed pay towards professors with the most prolific output.
The study confirms long-held fears among academics that higher education hiring and pay policies have been distorted by the REF, a periodic exercise that has a substantial influence over the destination of UK research funding.
“While 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,” the study concluded.
John Gathergood, one of the authors of the paper presented to the Economic Policy panel meeting in Vienna, said the issue was likely to get worse in the next REF scheduled for 2021, when departments can nominate individual staff with up to five publications rather than four in the last evaluation.
“The impact of the REF is not neutral. It encourages universities to hire superstars because the benefits are quite substantial. And the benefits are going to be even higher in 2021 than last time,” Gathergood said.
Because academics are able to move the affiliation of their published research across universities, he said a “transfer market” had sprung up as universities competed for staff.
The paper by Gathergood and his colleagues Gianni De Fraja and Giovanni Facchini matched outcomes from the last REF with data on pay, and found that departments where professors got the highest average levels of pay also received the best REF performance measures.
The REF’s measure of individual publications, in particular, was associated with higher average levels of pay, while its measures of research impact and academic community – which were related to departments rather than identified individuals – showed no association, the study found.
The pay effect was seen across the board in universities, departments and subjects, among the more than 52,000 staff at the 154 institutions that took part in 2014. It also found that the boost from hiring a superstar was most marked in newer or less highly rated universities, compared with those in the research-intensive Russell Group of universities, such as Imperial College.
But hiring or rewarding superstars could demoralise other staff in a department, according to Gathergood. Senior professors were able to earn up to seven times more than newly promoted professors on the lowest nationally agreed salary.
“If you feel that you are working hard, and your university or your department hires an outsider as professor because they’ve got a lot of publications, then that probably feels very unfair,” Gathergood said.
But departments with particularly unequal pay – meaning a bigger gap between superstars and the rest – were associated with better REF results, especially in arts and humanities subjects as well as sciences and engineering.
The authors also noted another side-effect: those departments whose staff served as REF panel members – judging the research impact of their peers – seem to also have received higher ratings.