Wednesday, 18 June 2014

The University as big business:

The case of King's College London

 


© www.CartoonStock.com

King's College London is in the news for all the wrong reasons. In a document full of weasel words ('restructuring', 'consultation exercise'), staff in the schools of medicine and biomedical sciences, and the Institute of Psychiatry were informed last month that 120 of them were at risk of redundancy. The document was supposed to be confidential but was leaked to David Colquhoun who has posted a link to it on his blog.  This isn't the first time KCL has been in the news for its 'robust' management style. A mere four years ago, a similar though smaller purge was carried out at the Institute of Psychiatry, together with a major divestment in Humanities at KCL.

Any tale of redundancies on such a scale is a human tragedy, whether it be in a car factory or a University. But the two cases are not entirely parallel. For a car factory, the goal of the business is to make a profit. A sensible employer will try to maintain a cheerful and committed workforce, but ultimately they may be sacrificed if it proves possible to cut costs by, for instance, getting machines to do jobs that were previously done by people. The fact that a University is adopting that approach – sacking its academic staff to improve its bottom line – is an intellectual as well as a human tragedy. It shows how far we have moved towards the identification of universities with businesses.

Traditionally, a university was regarded as an institution whose primary function was the furtherance of learning and knowledge. Money was needed to maintain the infrastructure and pay the staff, but the money was a means to an end, not an end in itself. However, it seems that this quaint notion is now rejected in favour of a model of a university whose success is measured in terms of its income, not in terms of its intellectual capital.

The opening paragraph of the 'consultation document' is particularly telling: "King’s has built a reputation for excellence and has established itself as a world class university. Our success has been built on growing research volumes in key areas, improving research quality, developing our resources and offering quality teaching to attract the best students in an increasingly competitive environment." Note there is no mention of the academic staff of the institution. They are needed, of course, to "grow research volumes" (ugh!), just as factory workers are needed to manufacture cars. But they aren't apparently seen as a key feature of a successful academic institution. Note too the emphasis is on increasing the amount of research rather than research quality.

The most chilling feature of the document is the list of criteria that will be used to determine which staff are 'at risk'.  You are safe if you play a key role in teaching, or if you have grant income that exceeds a specified amount, dependent on your level of seniority.
What's wrong with this? Well, here are four points just for starters:

1. KCL management justifies its actions as key for "maintaining and improving our position as one of the world’s leading institutions". Sorry, I just don't get it. You don't improve your position by shedding staff, creating a culture of fear, and deterring research superstars from applying for positions in your institution in future.

2. The 'restructuring' treats individual scientists as islands. The Institute of Psychiatry has over the years built up a rich research community, where there are opportunities for people to bounce ideas off each other and bring complementary skills to tackling difficult problems. Making individuals redundant won't just remove an expense from the KCL balance sheet – it will also affect the colleagues of those who are sacked. 

3. As I've argued previously, the use of research income as a proxy measure of research excellence distorts and damages science. It provides incentives for researchers to get grants for the sake of it – the more numerous and more expensive the better. We end up with a situation where there is terrific waste because everyone has a massive backlog of unpublished work.
 
4. I suspect that part of the motivation behind the "restructuring" is in the hope that new buildings and infrastructure might reverse the poor showing of KCL in recent league tables of student satisfaction. If so, the move has backfired spectacularly. The student body at KCL has started a petition against the sackings, which has drawn attention to the issue worldwide.I urge readers to sign it.

Management at KCL just doesn't seem to get a very basic fact about running a university: Its academic staff are vital for the university's goal of achieving academic excellence. They need to be fostered, not bullied. One feels that if KCL were falling behind in a boat race, they'd respond by throwing out some of the rowers.

28 comments:

  1. It seems to me that your use of the phrase "research superstars" suggests you have bought into the very same ideology you deplore.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Erm, you don't seem to have read much of what I've written if you think that.
      Obviously, it depends how you define a research superstar. No doubt KCL would regard that as someone who brings in shedloads of grant money. And maybe they'll get such people applying for jobs in future.
      But to me a superstar is someone who does excellent, careful, replicable research that changes the field. Someone, for instance, in psychology, like Daniel Kahneman or Brenda Milner - or in other areas of science, James Higgs, Frances Crick, Dorothy Hodgkin, John Sulston - I suspect all of these would have been fired by KCL for working too slowly and bringing in too little funding.

      Delete
  2. As a PhD student interested in child psychiatry, the IoP is the sort of research institution I might have considered working with one day in the future if the opportunity arose.
    As you say though, what is happening now and has happened before has completely put me off of that idea. A career in academia seemed unstable and hard enough before such extreme measures were taken by KCL!
    I just hope it doesn't set a precedent for other research institutions.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. As a PhD student at the IoP, please still consider working with us. We like it when people do that!

      This is also another major problem with the cuts - they are causing secondary damage to the departments themselves, who disagree with the approach as much as anyone...

      Delete
  3. Amy (student campaigner at IoP)18 June 2014 10:25

    Great article.

    Www.kclhealthsos.org.uk - our student campaign website with more information, articles and a link to the petition.

    ReplyDelete
  4. The use of income as a proxy seems very common especially in the sciences, to a degree which never ceases to amaze me. It should be output not inputs that count, or to be technical Value Added (output-input). But I find that argument hard to get across to administrators and scientists - surprise. But presumably the substantial overheads that come with some grants is a factor here.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You are surely right about the overhead, but in the US at least this is all illusory. True enough, administers get to brag about the amount of money brought into their institutions, but the overhead isn't "profit". The government agencies that estimate overhead rates are pretty good at their jobs, and so if they say it will cost you X% more to run the project, they are probably correct. Schools that expand under the illusion that overhead is bonus money can get in trouble very quickly.

      Delete
    2. I agree with both of you - first, the pressure on academics to bring in grants is because that also brings overheads, and 2nd, the overheads aren't just pure profit but are often treated as such.
      In the UK, though, there is a central block grant from our higher education funding council that could be seen more like pure profit: depending on how the university is ranked, you get money for infrastructure costs. This is more for future spend and long-term planning than to cover ongoing costs. That makes sense, of course - if you want to do brain imaging, for instance, you need resources over and beyond those from grants to set up and run research facilities such as buildings and labs. The ranking of universities, through the 'Research Excellence Framework' is based on a range of criteria, but research income is one of them. How you score on the REF can make a huge difference to an institution's income.
      But like you and other commentators, I think we need to rethink how we do this, because the current system just encourages bloating of research proposals and incentives to do things expensively and to take on ridiculous numbers of projects. Some kind of index of value for money from research might counteract this - and give more awareness of the value of people who manage to achieve much with more modest resources.

      Delete
    3. Yes! One of my major frustrations since grad school has been the prioritization of expensive research, especially when it is without regard to the possibilities of doing more IMPORTANT stuff cheaper. I have seen even senior faculty struggle to get recognition when they do exceptional work that simply does not require large amounts of grant money. I do think it is important, for example, to do cognitive neuroscience, but at least half the funded studies that I have seen using scanners are asking questions that could have been answered, probably better, with behavioral studies that would cost a quarter of the amount.

      Delete
    4. That's a very interesting observation. One could wonder, at a deeper level, about what happens to scientific knowledge itself. The research done by scientists at pharmaceutical companies is influenced by business interests. This affects the very nature of what becomes scientific "truth" (a great article on this is Alastair Matheson's 'Corporate Science and the Husbandry of Scientific and Medical Knowledge by the Pharmaceutical Industry' http://www.law-lib.utoronto.ca/ghostwriter/Matheson_BioSocieties08.pdf). If academic research is determined by financial interests, and if the neoliberal agenda continues to reduce independent government funding, where will the funding for "pure" science come from, i.e., the science that is independent of the potential to generate profits in the market? We will end up finding only what we're looking for and never know about the possibilities we never explored.

      Delete
  5. Left out of this article is the other side of the coin; the burgeoning management structure of the mundane college activities. No matter who you talk to in a central administrative function, they always seem to have a superior to pass whatever it is up to. You can't get hold of an actual person-in-post diagram of the KCL structure; if you could, I'm willing to bet it's drastically top heavy.

    Then there's the bizarre list of outgoings - branding consultations which seem to require KCL to rename itself "King's London" or it will wither and die, a new website every two years bringing with it titanic migration projects and a slew of "communication & web managers", the phoenix that was and is again the chemistry department. And all under the watchful eye of one of the highest paid chancellors in the sector.

    So the medicine is unpalatable and dispensed vigorously, whilst the root cause of the dis-ease hasn't been tackled. You're quite right to point out that it will put people off KCL. I've seen it myself before, and it's now so common that almost everyone in the sector will have some experience of it. They'll have the patient on the table every two or three years, trimming off the "excess fat" first, then lopping off gangrenous appendages next before the rot spreads, not wanting to face up to the reality that a necrotic periphery is merely a symptom of a weak, poorly functioning and fatty heart.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. "the burgeoning management structure of the mundane college activities" - This is exactly what we have to tackle, and the rest will take care of itself!

      Delete
  6. Great article! I totally agree.

    ReplyDelete
  7. You could add Peter Higgs to the list of eminent alumni that the current-look King's would also certainly have sacked, Dorothy.

    If you look up Higgs' publication record in the decade between his (Kings') PhD in 1954, and the now-famous boson paper in 1964, you will see him publishing around a paper a year, single author (no expensive side-kicks, and presumably cheap research to do as he was a theoretician) and often hardly cited. During this time he was variously a research fellow and junior lecturer at the London Colleges and at Edinburgh. It hardly needs saying that such 'unproductive' (read 'inexpensive') stuff would cut no ice today.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Even Higgs thinks this. "Peter Higgs, the British physicist who gave his name to the Higgs boson, believes no university would employ him in today's academic system because he would not be considered "productive" enough.
      http://www.theguardian.com/science/2013/dec/06/peter-higgs-boson-academic-system

      BTW who are James Higgs and Frances Crick?

      Delete
    2. Heh! Well spotted. First is a conflation of Watson/Higgs and 2nd probably reflects a subconscious desire to have more women on the list. And a reminder that I should never write anything on the internet when in a rush!

      Delete
  8. This is such an important issue. Thank you for an excellent post. I just finished reading a book on this subject that I would recommend: Steven C Ward, ' Neoliberalism and the global restructuring of knowledge and education.' It's mostly about post-secondary (as we call it in the US) education, and he discusses the UK, Australia, New Zealand, and the US. Ward is a sociologist in the Science & Technology Studies tradition. His analysis is depressing. His conclusion is that we may have to endure several more decades of the dominance of neoliberalism. His argument for why neoliberalism will ultimately fail is that by creating a society that is so completely individualistic, it destroys the very basis for markets. I'm not holding my breath.

    ReplyDelete
  9. Dorothy I like your blog immensely and this post makes an entertaining read, but I think you ignore an important problem. If universities are to maintain a happy, productive academic workforce, they will increasingly need to adopt strategies like that set out in the Kings document.

    Universities are not businesses but they do not run on air, not even hot air. They run on money, most of which they spend on salaries. When they run into deficit, they need to cut the salary bill. Of course you can argue, as I think David Colquhoun does, that the deficit at Kings may reflect REF gamesmanship. I wouldn't argue with that. I want to focus on the approach they are using to reduce the deficit.

    The traditional way to cut the salary bill is to stop recruitment. Staff in post remain secure. There is no outcry. Nor are there any new jobs. Promising careers are nipped in the bud. This nearly happened to me in the 1980s. At one point my job prospects were so precarious that I nearly applied for graduate entry to the police force.

    Ever since my unhappy contemplation of the policeman's lot, I have thought that the best approach when jobs have to be lost is to start by assuming that everybody should be considered and then to consider what might be criteria for retention. One can read the Kings document in this way. It states two criteria for retention, teaching 75-100 hours per year, and having grant income of £150,00 - £200,000 per year for a professor.

    I completely agree with you that it is bad to run massive research groups supported by grant income, but £150,000-£200,000 equates to roughly two post-docs per professor, depending on how much the grant contributes to indirect costs. That's not a massive group. The document makes it clear that there will be other criteria, and that individual cases will be considered on their merits.

    The reasons that I think the Kings approach is important is that career prospects for young researchers are dire. The situation is much worse now than when I was a post-doc, and not just because police forces are cutting numbers. With an end to the compulsory retirement age, career prospects of PhD students and post-docs will depend on having business practices that create vacancies. In that context, however much one may disagree with the language, it is important to think about whether the kind of approach set out in Kings document could beneficially be used elsewhere.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. So you seem to be saying we should abolish tenure. Is that right?

      Delete
    2. Tenure is long gone. I'm saying that now that academics don't have to stop drawing a salary when they reach retirement age, we (as a profession) need to find a new way of creating turnover. My view is that we need a way to get people who have risen up the salary scale because of excellent performance to slide down the salary scale if their performance declines, whatever their age. If we don't do that, how can we encourage clever people into the profession?

      Delete
    3. I don't think anyone will want to enter a profession where you can be fired so readily because of factors outside your control.
      My impression was that, although in the past there were cases of mass sackings in universities, these were usually done as a last resort when all other options had been exhausted. Now that university management realise they can do it, it's become the first, rather than the last, thing they try to balance the budget. It is incredibly short-sighted. Twenty years ago, it might have been argued you were cutting out dead wood, but the dead wood is long gone.
      I wish I could believe that KCL were motivated by a desire to create jobs for the young, but there's no evidence for that, and it's not an argument that is put forward by Robert Lechler in defending KCL's stance; see http://kclhealthsos.wix.com/stopkclredundancies#!sir-lechlers-response/c7ma
      Personally, I'd be quite happy to see salaries for more senior staff capped; it would be good to start with the Vice-Chancellors themselves. According to The Telegraph, Rick Trainor was on £310K in 2010 and no doubt it's more now (especially since VC salaries are more public and they all want to earn more than each other):http://www.telegraph.co.uk/education/universityeducation/7429366/Vice-chancellors-see-pay-soar-as-funding-crisis-hits-universities.html
      if Trainor, Lechler and their associates would be willing to be satisfied with a salary equivalent to that of the Prime Minister, several jobs could be saved.

      Delete
    4. I give up. My comment seems to be interpreted by others if not by you as a defence of what Kings have done. I don't want to do that. I wanted to make a more general point, which I will do elsewhere.

      Delete
    5. Amy (student campaigner at IoP)23 June 2014 13:27

      Andrew - I know you are making a general point, but just a few specific detail relevant to this case.

      You say: "The document makes it clear that there will be other criteria, and that individual cases will be considered on their merits."

      In the second stage, yes. But the first stage, which has already passed, was based purely on those figures and now 138 staff have been deemed at risk (to the best of my knowledge). Up to 120 staff could be made redundant, so the room for other criteria to have an impact is fairly minimal. This is especially true considering that at risk staff have a 2 page document in which they must defend themselves, which doesn't give much room for considering the individual merits of each case either.

      I know you're not defending their actions as a whole, but you do appear to be defending aspects of their approach - unfortunately I think they are presenting their approach in a significantly more positive light than reality.

      Delete
  10. When higher education chooses to value profits over knowledge and the academic profession, university administrators must be paid salaries comparable to those in the corporate world. Nice story on this: The Clever Stunt Four Professors Just Pulled to Expose the Outrageous Pay Gap in Academia http://www.slate.com/blogs/browbeat/2014/06/16/university_of_alberta_professors_apply_for_vice_chancellor_s_job_in_clever.html

    ReplyDelete
  11. "if KCL were falling behind in a boat race, they'd respond by throwing out some of the rowers." lol!

    ReplyDelete
  12. Imagine the whole country as a car factory, and society as the car if produces. If the car factory then cuts funding to the research department (the Universities) then the future cars it produces will fall behind those of it's competitors. The problem here is not the research department, it is society (who give the government it's power) not recognising the importance of the work of our Scientists and Engineers! Need to change this downward spiral, Science and Engineering need promoting!

    ReplyDelete
  13. Amy (student campaigner at IoP)23 June 2014 13:13

    If anyone would like to come join our protest against these plans, and this worrying trend in academia in general, come join us tomorrow!

    We will be gathering in the main quad outside the Somerset House East Wing of Strand Campus, in Central London, from 16.45 before the College Council Meeting. You don't need to bring anything but yourselves! Help us get our voice heard!

    You can email stopkclredundancies@gmail.com for more details.

    ReplyDelete
  14. I believe everyone knows that this has occurred at the University of Sussex. I can say as being a student during the time of redundancies in the School of Life Sciences and Psychology, we had excellent lecturers who were at the forefront of their field. They were made redundant as a result of poor grant income. This included the eminent David Waxman for his work on statistics within biology in insects, Charles Abraham, who was an inspiration to the school of psychology and made people interested in health psychology. When they left, the school was different. The morale of their colleagues, students and family members were affected and most of the lecturers had lost the interest they had in their jobs and it just felt empty like there was a funeral. I don't want this to happen to KCL and trust me after the redundancies, they wanted to privatise the university and there has been numerous strikes that has damaged the university's reputation and reduced it in the League Tables. It is still an excellent university, but for how long, optimistically I want to say don't know, realistically I think it will get worse by next year.

    ReplyDelete