Image: Nycholas Souza / Unsplash
Image: Nycholas Souza / Unsplash

Study shows universities “poaching” for “superstar” professors like football clubs

According to a study, universities are emulating the way football clubs conduct business by poaching “superstar” talent, and rewarding an elite group of professors with higher pay to boost their research rankings.

A team of researchers from the University of Nottingham found that the Research Excellence Framework (REF) – a periodic exercise which influences the allocation of university research funding – shows that pay is “skewed” in favour of professors with the most prolific output.

The research paper, presented to the Economic Policy Panel meeting in Vienna, confirmed fears among the academic community that the REF distorted hiring and pay policies at higher education institutions.

It reported that departments where professors were awarded the highest average levels of pay also received the best REF performance measures.

The study also saw that the pay effect was found in many institutions, including high-ranking Russell Group universities, while “superstar poaching” is more prolific in newer or less highly-ranked universities.

It concluded: “While individual UK academics and administrators will no doubt find these results of much interest, they warrant wider attention.

“They contain important lessons on the effects of liberalising pay and introducing competition for resources in a largely publicly funded system.”

John Gathergood, one of the authors of the paper, said: “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.”

He added that hiring or rewarding certain academics but not others could lead to the demoralisation of members of staff with particular departments. According to The Guardian, senior professors could earn up to seven times more than newly promoted professors.

Recently, the University of Northumbria was exposed for rewarding senior managers with bonuses of over £600,000. The news comes after it was found that staff had spent more than £2,000 on a “corporate event” at a lap dancing chain.

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