Academics have expressed outrage at the dismissal of Jim Newell from his position as professor of politics at Salford University for failing to reach grant income targets. A petition addressed to Vice-Chancellor Professor Helen Marshall and calling for Newell’s reinstatement has received over 5,000 signatures.

Newell, an expert on Italian politics who had worked at the university for 27 years, was fired in June. New financial criteria for performance reviews introduced by the institution require senior academics to attract certain amounts of research income and to contribute to the development of closer relationships with business. Newell failed to meet these arbitrary financial targets”, as described to Times Higher Education by Dr Arianna Giovannini of De Montfort University.

The Italian Politics Specialist Group of the Political Studies Association, co-chaired by Dr Giovannini alongside Newell, launched a petition calling for Newell’s reinstatement. The petition describes Newell as a prominent scholar in Italian politics who has brought his discipline to the UK. It notes his prolific contribution to academic literature and his appearance in the national media. His dismissal for this reason, the petition states, “speaks volumes about the level reached by processes of marketisation of higher education in the UK.”

A letter, dated June 12th and published on The Guardian website on July 24th, highlights that the financial targets were not part of Newell’s original contract when he was appointed professor in 2005. University of Liverpool University and College Union (UCU) Branch describe this retroactive application of targets as a violation of a fundamental principle of the rule of law. The Guardian letter warns against the gearing of “academic enterprise towards economic logistics rather than the production of knowledge for its own sake” and calls Newell’s dismissal “a serious attack on the principles of higher education”.

The Salford Star reported on July 20th that Jim Newell protested outside The Lowry as graduates received their degrees. He handed out leaflets, joined by members of Sheffield Hallam UCU as lecturers at his own institution couldn’t risk bringing the university into disrepute by lending support. Newell is quoted as saying the marketisation of education has resulted in universities operating as a business, with staff assessed by financial targets rather than their teaching and research abilities. A spokesperson for Salford University told the Star the institution “seeks to uphold the highest possible standards in relation to both research and teaching”.

In a statement to The Sphinx, the University of Liverpool UCU Branch extended their solidarity and support, stating, “we are all Jim Newell now”. On Tuesday 7th August, the branch unanimously adopted a motion calling for Newell’s reinstatement. The motion states that business-oriented managers have “hijacked” higher education institutions. Their view is that the targets of which Newell fell afoul undermine “academics’ scope for disinterested criticism and enquiry”, and that treatment of universities as businesses and students as customers harms the capacity of students to learn. Newell also views his treatment as part of the same issue underlying higher tuition fees and the attack on pensions: the marketisation of education.

In response to a query as to whether such targets exist for academics at the University of Liverpool, a University spokesperson said: “The University of Liverpool has a set of published expectations in place for each level of academic staff to work to. In addition, on an annual basis academic staff agree their plans and priorities for the coming year with their line manager as part of the personal development review process. For teaching and research staff this includes research outputs, generation or support of research impact, and enhancements to the research environment.”

This statement suggests financial criteria do not feature in the performance review of academic staff, although it does not explicitly exclude them. A source in the University, who wishes to remain anonymous, claims such criteria are used for the promotion and hiring of professors.

The University of Liverpool has its own experience of controversy over staff dismissal with administrator Dawn Holdman let go days before Christmas 2016 after 28 years of service. Holdman was the only person made compulsorily redundant during a restructure involving hundreds of staff and was the only active trade unionist in the School of Medicine, raising questions about a link between the two factors.

Featured image (modified): Peel Building, University of Salford by Parrot of Doom (Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license)