Essex University invokes ‘capability’ for research staff after mini-REF, and claims probationary lecturers ‘not academics’

From the national UCU website:

In September 2017, approximately one-eighth of the research-active staff were sent letters warning that their positions might be in danger, including the invocation of Capability proceedings to remove them from their jobs. This represents an alarming increase in the use of Capability at Essex. It is evidence not of individual failure of academics but a system that creates failure. As the eminent sociologist C. Wright Mills argued, if there are 1-2 people unemployed in a city, we may look to their individual psychology for answers, but if it is 5-10% of the population, then it is a social not an individual problem.

This development is linked to the invention at Essex of an internal REF process, requiring all researchers to achieve 4 publications which judges in our departments believe to be 3* – two of them accepted by September 2017 – even before national REF targets had been set. We now know only one is required. Linking this setting of internal publication targets to job security is an unprecedented move, practically unique to Essex, and one that has led to a widely-perceived de-professionalisation of academics and job threatsIt also represents mission creep: Capability procedures have never been systematically used for this before.

Another extremely serious issue, again unique to Essex, is the declaration by senior management that academics with probationary status are not “academic staff”. This curious claim is not just a matter of semantics – it appears intended to deny probationers the protection of Ordinance 41 which covers procedures for capability, disciplinary, grievances, and redundancy that management cannot easily change, and guarantees academic freedom and “the principles of justice and fairness”.

The national President of UCU, Joanna de Groot, when she visited Essex this month, expressed shock at this move and questioned the wisdom of the senior management failing to recognise probationary staff as “academic staff”, given the possible impact this may have on hiring the best new staff in future. She rightly insisted probationers are certainly not fixed-term staff and are entitled to the same protections as other academics.

More information


About Sean

Principal Research Fellow, Survey of English Usage, University College London
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