Archive for December 9th, 2010

Concentration – it’s not what you think

December 9, 2010

In which we get a glimpse of the future. And it isn’t very comforting.

Those who have been reading here recently will remember that the last post began:

“In Universities up and down the UK, University managers are considering the implications of the Government’s funding cuts.”

And I also said:

“…most Universities are planning for significant real-terms cuts in the budget, whatever happens on Thursday.”

As the last post discussed, the axe has been seen as likeliest to fall in the arts, where the Govt proposes to cut away all tax-derived funding for teaching. But sciences will not be immune, either.

Universities Minister David Willetts (especially) and Business Secretary Vince Cable have been making a lot of noises about how the increase in direct fees (i.e. paid by the students) will make Universities take teaching more seriously, and “improve teaching’s status”.

I have to say that I have yet to meet a single person who actually works in a University who believes this.

I said as much, just the other day, in a comment on Dr Phil Yerboot’s blog:

“I know the ConDems have been saying that teaching in Univs will be “up-status-ed” by these moves, but it would be fair to say that no-one I know in a Univ who does a primarily teaching-focussed job (like me) thinks their status is actually going to rise, at least as measured by things like promotion and salary increments.

I suspect that it may develop that such things come to matter more for some courses in some institutions, but I can’t see medical schools being among them, for the simple reason that demand for places nationally is likely to always exceed supply. Thus even the medical schools that finish near the bottom in [the National Student Survey results] have no trouble filling the courses. So I wouldn’t see research losing its grip on academic career progression any time soon. Indeed, as the amount of research cash that there is to be given out decreases, the Univs will be getting more, not less, obsessed with grant-getting.”

The last sentence there is the key. One hears a lot of talk in research-intensive Universities these days about the need to “disinvest” in “less than excellent research”. Another word one hears a lot is “concentration” – which is a euphemism for what you do by “disinvesting”.

Now, over the 25 years I have worked in UK Universities it has always been true that the individuals most likely to be shed in University voluntary redundancy campaigns – and I’ve lived through at least a half dozen – are academics in the 50+ age range with primarily teaching “portfolios”. These people do not boost the research profile, goes the argument, and you can always get someone cheaper to teach the class – or you can not replace them at all, and simply make everyone who is left take on a bit more teaching.

What is new in the ConDem world is that relatively less profitable areas of research are set for the same treatment. That is, people with active labs, and probably PhD students, and possibly even grants, are going to be in the cross-hairs too.

The last time this was true was when I first came into academia; the Thatcher years of the 80s, much invoked lately by pundits seeking parallels with the current cuts.

When this kind of thing comes along, the individual character of institutions and their bosses comes to the fore. Some are more aggressive about “getting ahead of the game”, others less. Some simply opt for a voluntary redundancy scheme and hope enough people sign up to cut the wage bill by an acceptable degree. Others, especially now, will see it as a chance for “radical restructuring” – or,  in the new vocabulary, “concentration”.

Among all UK Universities, I would have said that Imperial College London  is the one that has historically thought and behaved the most like a business. Early import of management practises borrowed from business, takeovers, attempts at major mergers (like the aborted one with UCL) etc etc. You can also see it in their choice of VCs/Principals and where they come from – ex-business honchos (like Richard Sykes, ex Glaxo) rather than ex-academics.

When I offered the above opinion of Imperial on a medical blog recently, I was chided by blogger Sam, who I suspect has had children attending Imperial. You can read the full exchange there if you are interested. Sam stressed Imperial’s commitment to “enterprise and entrpreneurialism”, which I think is true. I pointed to its reputation among academics for being a pretty hard-nosed employer, and fonder than most UK Universities of restructings and redundancies.

And now today I understand that a whole subsection of plant scientists are Imperial are set for the chop. There is an article about this from the Imperial College students’ paper here, and a letter from an Emeritus Professor – I’m guessing the former head of the threatened grouping – can be found here.

You will perhaps note with interest what he says about teaching, and things other than research in general.

I wonder if Messrs Willetts and Cable are following?

And finally, I am feeling a bit like Cassandra. In one of my responses to Sam I wrote that:

“The answer may well be that Imperial is a very good place to be a high-flying academic, but not a very good one to be an average academic. But all Universities actually need (perhaps slightly better than) average academics too.”

And I also said something else:

“Of course, I suspect the Conservative Govt would likely regard [Imperial] as a model”

So perhaps David and Vince will be paying attention after all.

For I  fear that what is happening at Imperial is the shape of things to come elsewhere.