Wednesday 3 March 2021

University staff cuts under the cover of a pandemic: the cases of Liverpool and Leicester

I had a depressing sense of déjà vu last week on learning that two UK Universities, University of Liverpool and University of Leicester, had plans for mass staff redundancies, affecting many academic psychologists among others. I blogged about a similar situation affecting Kings College London 7 years ago.

I initially wondered whether these new actions were related to the adverse effect of the pandemic on university finances, but it's clear that both institutions have been trying to bring in staff cuts for some years. The pandemic seems not so much the reason for the redundancies as a smokescreen behind which university administration can smuggle in unpopular measures.  

Nothing, of course, is for ever, and universities have to change with the times. But in both these cases, the way in which cuts are being made seems both heartless and stupid, and has understandably attracted widespread condemnation (see public letters below). There are differences in the criteria used to select people for redundancy at the two institutions, but the consequences are similar.  

The University of Liverpool has used a metrics-based approach, singling out people from the Faculty of Health and Life Sciences who don't meet cutoffs in terms of citations and grant income. Elizabeth Gadd (@LizzieGadd) noted on Twitter that SciVal's Field-Weighted Citation Index, which was being used to evaluate staff, is unstable and unreliable with small sample sizes . Meanwhile, and apparently in a different universe, the University has recently advertised for a "Responsible Metrics Implementation Officer", funded by the Wellcome Trust, whose job is to "lead the implementation of a project to embed the principles of the Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA) in the university's practice". Perhaps their first job will be to fire the people who have badly damaged the University's reputation by their irresponsible use of metrics (see also this critique in Times Higher Education).  

It is worth noting too that the advertisement proudly boasts that the University is a recipient of an Athena SWAN silver award, when among those targeted for redundancy are some who have worked tirelessly on Athena SWAN applications for institutes across the faculty where redundancies are planned. Assembling one of these applications is widely recognised as taking up as much time as the preparation of a major grant proposal. There won't be another Athena SWAN exercise for a few years and so it seems the institution is happy to dispose of the services of those who worked to achieve this accolade.  

The University of Leicester has adopted a different strategy, compiling a hit list that is based not on metrics, but on subject area. They are discussing proposals to close* redundancies at five academic departments and three professional services units in order to "secure the future of the university". Staff who have worked at the university for decades have described the surreal experience of receiving notifications of the planned job losses alongside warm-hearted messages emphasising how much the university wants to support their mental health and wellbeing.  

I lived through a purge some 20 years ago when I was based at the Medical Research Council's Applied Psychology Unit in Cambridge. MRC used the inter-regnum period between one director retiring and a new one being appointed to attempt to relocate staff who were deemed to be underperforming. As with all these exercises, management appeared to envisage an institution that will remain exactly as before with a few people subtracted. But of course it doesn't work that way. Ours was a small and highly collegial research unit, and living through the process of having everyone undergoing a high-stakes evaluation affected all of us. I can't remember how long the process went on for, but it felt like years. A colleague who, like me, was not under threat, captured it well when he said that he had previously felt a warm glow when he received mail with the MRC letterhead. Now he felt a cold chill in anticipation of some fresh hell. I've had similar conversations at other universities with senior academics who can recall times when those managing the institution were regarded as benevolent, albeit in a (desirably) distant manner. Perhaps it helped that in those days vice chancellors often came from the ranks of the institution's senior academics, and saw their primary goal as ensuring a strong reputation for teaching and research.  

As the sector has been increasingly squeezed over the years, this cosy scenario has been overturned, with a new cadre of managers appearing, with an eye on the bottom line. The focus has been on attracting student consumers with glitzy buildings and facilities, setting up overseas campuses to boost revenues, and recruiting research superstars who will embellish the REF portfolio. Such strategies seldom succeeded, with many universities left poorer by the same vice-chancellors who were appointed because of their apparent business acumen.  

There has been a big shift from the traditional meaning of "university" as a community of teachers and scholars. Academic staff are seen as dispensable, increasingly employed on short-term contracts. Whereas in the past there might be a cadre of academics who felt loyal to their institution and pride in being part of a group dedicated to the furtherance of knowledge, we now have a precariat who live in fear of what might happen if targets are not met. And this is all happening at a time when funders are realising that effective research is done by teams of people, rather than lone geniuses (see e.g. this report). Such teams can take years to build, but can be destroyed overnight, by those who measure academic worth by criteria such as grant income, or whether the Vice Chancellor understands the subject matter. I wonder too what plans there are for graduate students whose supervisors are unexpectedly dismissed - if interdependence of the academic community is ignored, there will be impacts that go beyond those in the immediate firing line.  

Those overseeing redundancies think they can cut out a pound of flesh from the university body, but unlike Shylock, who knew full well what he was doing, they seem to believe they can do so without weakening the whole institution. They will find to their cost that they are doing immense damage, not just to their reputation, but to the satisfaction and productivity of all who work and study there.  

Public letters of concern 

University of Leicester, Departments of Neuroscience, Psychology and Behaviour  

University of Liverpool, use of inappropriate metrics  

Equality and Diversity implications, University of Liverpool


*correction made 5th March 2021 


  1. Excellent post. All of those targeted for redundancy at Liverpool (47) are wihin the Faculty of Health and Life Sciences. The following open letter sent to our VC et al has now been signed by more than 255 members of our Faculty:

    External supporters are encouraged to sign.

  2. Spot on, I am grateful that my institutional leadership are better and wiser than those in the universities you highlight.

  3. Great post. I think there are also the effects of losing future researchers. I'm just graduating with a PhD and have 4 friends graduating. All of us have decided to pursue careers outside of the university because we are worried about the direction universities are currently taking. None of us even applied for a university position or post-doc. Sad to see this happening.