Hiring and Firing for the Sake of Rankings


To what lengths do departments and universities go to improve their rankings? In one case, a school is being accused of firing a number of its philosophy lecturers and using the funds to give contracts to professors elsewhere so they can have honorary appointments at the school to improve its research profile.

 The Australian reports that Australian Catholic University (ACU)

gutted its philosophy department in favour of hiring overseas professors on $90,000-a-year part-time contracts as part of a “ruthless” strategy to artificially boost its research rankings…  there are as many lecturers with strict teaching loads as there are foreign academics being paid for their ­existing research output.

The rankings in question are Australia’s Excellence in Research (ERA) program for evaluating academic scholarship.

Here are the honorary appointments in Philosophy and Theology and ACU. (It does not appear to have been recently updated, as it lists Marilyn McCord Adams, who died in March.) [Note: Daniel Nolan remarks in a comment, below, “The honorary appointments list is not the list of outsiders brought in on part-time positions: many, and probably most of those appointments are of people who do not get any pay in return for their honorary status.”]

How does the school get away with it?

The practice relies on a loophole in the federal government’s ERA system that allows universities to hire academics on fractional packages and still have their work output count towards the ratings system. The rule was originally designed to allow career researchers who had children to return to work part-time and have their publishing continue. Instead, institutions are, to varying degrees, bringing in overseas academics with full-time positions elsewhere to bolster their ratings.

Signing one professor from another country on such arrangements allows a university to count their entire research output for a six-year period as being connected with the Australian organisation and, in essence, produced by them.

The ACU pays its overseas hires between $70,000 and $100,000 a year each and pays for their business-class travel and ­accommodation should they be required to visit. Deputy vice-chancellor (research) Wayne McKenna conceded the “recruitment of overseas academics” was a ­deliberate part of the university’s strategy.

Not all of the faculty are on board with the strategy. Stephen Buckle, who is quoted in the article in The Australian, recently resigned after his attempts to challenge the practice had the ACU administration calling him “insubordinate and unrepentant,” according to a letter to the editor he wrote.

Further information here. Comments from faculty in Australia and other places (like the UK) that have similar national research output measures are especially welcome.

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