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Universities’ league table obsession triggers mental health crisis fears

Jun 12, 2018 by

Academics urged to open up about stress and anxiety over high-stakes research audit

Academic researcher John Banks (not his real name) still has big personal regrets about bowing to pressure from his former university in the run-up to the government’s last high-stakes audit of research.

Universities obsess about the government’s Research Excellence Framework, known as the Ref, with good reason. The four-yearly exercise determines not only where around £2bn a year of public funding will go, but where universities and individual departments will rank in league tables.

As the 2014 submission deadline drew closer Banks was called into a meeting to discuss what publications he could enter to be judged. “To my horror they told me what I had was ‘slim pickings’. I was told to finish my two books quickly and to try to get more published after that,” he says.

“After a long illness my mum was at the end of her life, and I was needed to support her. By asking me to speed things up they were basically asking me to give up my private life.”

He explained he needed some personal time to be at the hospital, but says that, in the panic of the run-up to the submission date, his personal issues weren’t heard. “They were simply fixated with the Ref.”

“It was dizzying. I was told the university was depending on me turning this work out early. So I ended up next to my mum’s deathbed proofreading a monograph. The last conversation I had with her was about work and why I was doing so much.”

As a junior researcher who had netted a job in an intensely competitive academic market he says he was worried about whether his position would be safe if he didn’t deliver what was needed to help his department get a good Ref score. “I got it done,” he says quietly. “I felt regretful then, and I still feel regretful now about the time I lost with my family. And I probably stuffed up parts of those two books because I was hurrying and not entirely focused.”

The daunting Ref cycle is starting to hot up in universities now. It is still two years until universities must submit their entries for the 2021 Ref. But institutions’ mock audits of staff are already under way – sometimes in secret. Academics warn the assessment is triggering a mental health crisis in universities. They say researchers are too afraid or ashamed to speak out about their anxiety and depression.

Source: Universities’ league table obsession triggers mental health crisis fears | Education | The Guardian

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