The case of King's College London
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.