Fellows urge UKRI to change higher education culture

In an open letter to the chief executive and chair of UK Research and Innovation, 115 Future Leaders Fellows highlighted an urgent need to address working practices in academia

More than a hundred academics, winners of UKRI Future Leaders Fellowships, have written to the national funding body, warning researchers will quit the sector “in the face of increasingly unattractive conditions”.

The 115 signatories of the letter receive funding as Future Leaders Fellows, a scheme established by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) to “develop the next wave of world-class research and innovation leaders”.

The fellows warned UKRI that “declining real-terms pay and pensions, increasing workload and precarity of employment, and lack of equality in the sector” undermined careers and forced “excellent researchers to leave UK HE”.

The open letter called on the multi-billion-pound funder to “leverage its position” to take action.

“Just as you have invested substantially in our careers, we have invested our passion into building our career paths in the UK,” the signatories told UKRI’s chief executive, Prof Dame Ottoline Leyser, and chair, Sir Andrew Mackenzie. “We want to see substantial improvements in UK research culture, to contribute to the UK’s leadership in research globally, and to be able to wholeheartedly recommend careers in UK HE.”

In response, UKRI said it was “working hard to deliver on our responsibilities” and accepted the need for change is “urgent”.

Cuts to pensions, declining pay and poor conditions force excellent researchers to leave UK HE. In an international job market, these factors act as deterrents to attracting the best researchers to work with us
Future Leaders Fellows open letter

Writing on behalf of her organisation, Dame Ottoline responded: “We most certainly do not always get things right and we understand and share the frustration over the slow pace of change.”

The signatories say they “increasingly feel helpless” to change “deeply held” views in institutional leadership. They blame the structure of research and funding – including “metrics-driven evaluations”, “narrow management goals” and “short-term funding” – for perpetuating a “hyper-competitive discriminatory burnout culture”.

The “deteriorating reputation” of higher education, caused by “unresolved, extended strike action”, has left the fellows feeling “dismayed”.

The open letter calls on UKRI to change funds that encourage poor employment conditions and work with universities to resolve fair pay and pensions. The signatories also want UKRI to sanction universities that do not uphold commitments to support research staff.

Writing to the Future Leaders Fellows, Dame Ottoline expressed her view that “many of the problems we currently face arguably stem from an accumulation of specific fixes aimed at single issues,” adding that “profound culture change” and “systemic” solutions are required.

Dame Ottoline said UKRI would seek to find ways to balance public research funding mechanisms and incentivise the “right balance of roles”.

She pointed to the UKRI’s trail of double-blind peer reviews and two-step, staggered applications as ways her organisation sought to make the system fairer and less time-consuming.

Among other efforts to address workplace cultures, Dame Ottoline pointed to a £30m UKRI fund to trail ways in universities to improve research practices. The Future Research Assessment Programme (FRAP), led by funding bodies across the UK and chaired by Sir Peter Gluckman, will explore “what a healthy, thriving research system looks like”. When the FRAP concludes later this year, it will have evaluated REF 2021 and investigated alternative evaluative methods.

Read more: Tickell review of research bureaucracy releases interim findings

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