Concentration – it’s not what you think

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.


15 Responses to “Concentration – it’s not what you think”

  1. Tweets that mention Concentration – it’s not what you think « Dr Aust’s Spleen -- Says:

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  2. Sam Says:

    Dr Aust,

    I have been following your blog for a long time now, indeed I have it in my blog roll too so that I do not miss anything you write. That’s because, in general, I have ‘very’ high regard for academics, and all ‘good’ teachers too. Perhaps because I grew up in a family where academia was the status of the majority of the members of the generation above me, and although a little less so in my own generation, I personally always felt I did let myself down by not pursuing academia and getting one of those amazing PhDs you have! Too late, but I would give an arm and a leg for one! :-)

    Which means that I don’t know much about life in academia and the problems you face. I must say that I find it sad to hear that people like yourself feel threatened after a long time giving their all to their students and I have always noticed from your writing that you do. I also sincerely hope that whoever loses their place either at IC or elsewhere will be snapped up by other universities that are looking for, want to keep and to reward excellence; hard working and caring teachers like yourself and those facing the axe in the links you provided here.

    That said, I have been aware of the current state of academia with regards to young academic at heart doctors who have now decided to drop that dream because of, not only the lack of follow up, encouragement and motivation by some institutions, but also because of the current general feel that academia does not pay or provide status anymore! A terrible thing to say but that’s the reality out there, maybe your students can tell you if you ask them.

    … and I like Imperial because I had been a fan of what this college stands for even before any of my children were old enough to be at university, and because the two who graduated there had a memorable experience too. Again, I stress that I have no idea about it’s internal affairs or why decisions are made within different departments. But as a person who knows a little about business, I wouldn’t like to be in ‘any’ rector’s shoes in the current financial climate. However, I would have still liked to read their side of the story of why they are taking the decisions they are taking and that was absent from the links you provided.

    I hope the grey cloud will pass soon and with no harm, so, let’s hope


  3. drgrumble Says:

    “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.”

    This has certainly been the approach at Imperial. They have done it before and they will do it again. They are constantly using this technique to squeeze a quart out of a pint pot.

    On one occasion they sacked a whole load of excellent teachers and tried to persuade various others including busy clinicians and committed researchers to plug the gaps. This failed. Clinicians just don’t have the time and researchers work in a climate of fear about their research performance so avoid teaching. The end result was that they had to appoint Principal’s Lecturers to plug the gap. These people were cheaper than the people they had ‘sacked’. They in turn were got rid of in the next night of the long knives.

    If this awful business about fees puts more of a focus on teaching it will be a change that is needed. But I am not at all convinced it will. The prowess of these new academic corporations is likely to continue to revolve around its research income and output and the conflict with teaching will remain.

  4. drphilyerboots Says:

    I don’t work at imperial, but it is not dissimilar to the Big City University where I did my research. There were good teachers there, but good teaching is not very easy to measure, so the teaching role goes unvalued by the University heirarchy, who care for the RAE and research grants. While it is quite possible for a good researcher to be a good teacher, they are seperate domains of expertise.

    I remain hopeful that undergraduates will be more demanding of value for money in teaching when theypay their own fees. I suspect that Imperial, and most Medical Schools will remain oversubscribed as you mentioned in my blog, so perhaps the effects initially will be on less oversubscribed courses. In time these places will want to recruit better teachers, so in time Imperial may not be safe resting on it’s laurels.

    Yerboots junior is a chip off the old block, and sees the opportunities in today’s fee rise. Less competition at both application and for graduate jobs afterwards, and £18,000 in additional fees over a three year degree (the existing fees would have been £9,000, and subsistance the same). He will postpone buying an £18,000 pound car for a while longer, and be no worse off. As a nonselective state school applicant he may even be an especially favoured applicant, boosting the universitys access figures. A true Yerboots, always sees the silver lining in the cloud, and knows how to get the silver out!

  5. draust Says:


    Agree it is a tough time to be a rector/President/Vice Chancellor; also (as I said), I think that where Imperial leads, others will follow. But I do think IC are harder-nosed than most (all?) other UK Universities.

    One thing that some people don’t appreciate (you know this by the amount of stuff you see in the press about “crap teaching “ and “students short-changed”) is that academics try to treat their students a little bit like doctors do their patients, in that the internal problems of the system, and the inner troubles of the academic, should not become the students’ problem. So most academics shield the students from the behind-the-scenes turmoil, and try their best to give the students as good an experience as possible, come what may.

    Of course, that can then actually become part of the problem; institutions cut, and crack the whip, secure in the knowledge that academics’ professional pride will (generally) not let them short-change the students by (e.g.) giving an ill-prepared half-arsed lecture, or failing to show up for a tutorial.

    One thing that is quite notable in the protests at IC, if you read the article, is that they are being led very much by the students. So they clearly think the experience students get is in danger. One student commenting under the article posts:

    “I’m appalled that they can do this. It’s quite obvious that teaching is not important to them at all. If you asked for a list of suggestions of some of the best Biology and Biochemistry teachers, the list of those facing redundancy is pretty much the one you’d get.”

    @ Dr Grumble

    Thanks for the info. Completely agree that in the short term at least, and in the research intensive Univs, the likeliest outcome will be mean yet more emphasis on research and research funding.

    @ Dr Phil

    “good teaching is not very easy to measure, so the teaching role goes unvalued by the University hierarchy, who care for the RAE and research grants. While it is quite possible for a good researcher to be a good teacher, they are seperate domains of expertise.”

    Yes, I agree on most counts, though perhaps “undervalued” rather than unvalued. Certainly it is hard to measure good teaching. Apart from anything else, teachers vary a lot in styles – there are different ways to be good, and also one’s style tends to change as one gets more knowledgable and experienced. But as to measuring – to give a relevant example, what is the appropriate way to compare a 25 yr veteran researcher-turned-mostly-teacher (which I guess is me) with a 30 yr old teaching fellow?

    In general, my view is that if the students are getting something out of it, and can see the teacher cares that they are getting something out of it, then that is OK, style regardless.

    Re teachers and researchers, they are separate, but on the whole good researchers can be good teachers if they want to be. The main reason is that there is so much presentation involved in research these days that they get plenty of practise at presenting and explaining things. But they do also need to want to do it well – which is mostly the case, but sometimes not. By the way, one of the best article I have read in recent years on University teaching, which encapsulates a lot of what I would say is important, is here.

    Agree also that it will be a while under a fees system before many Univs really start thinking hard about teaching quality, and possibly only after an initial cycle of research-focussing. Though, it is interesting, as I said to Sam, that at Imperial – one of the UK’s research Big Four, or perhaps Big Six – it is largely the students kicking up a stink about the likely shutting of courses and the loss of senior teachers. So it may be that is the shape of things to come.
    PS Good to hear Yerboots Jr is not daunted. It will not be happening for us for a lot of years, but no doubt if we need to help the offspring out financially at University we will. Though by the time Aust Jr hits Univ Dr Aust may well be retired. So I guess I had better start saving now while I still have a job.

  6. Sam Says:

    “I think that where Imperial leads, others will follow”

    Although not familiar with what’s on the rector’s desk at Imperial, I think, based on how ‘you’ see it, that yes others will ‘have’ to follow, because they have no other choice.

    “that academics try to treat their students a little bit like doctors do their patients, in that the internal problems of the system, and the inner troubles of the academic, should not become the students’ problem. So most academics shield the students from the behind-the-scenes turmoil, and try their best to give the students as good an experience as possible, come what may.

    Of course, that can then actually become part of the problem; institutions cut, and crack the whip, secure in the knowledge that academics’ professional pride will (generally) not let them short-change the students by (e.g.) giving an ill-prepared half-arsed lecture, or failing to show up for a tutorial.”

    … and that’s why I follow your blog, precisely because that comes through in your writing.

    You know, we have a saying that goes ‘ When you do a job do it right and everything else will fall into place’, meaning, having integrity and honour ‘never’ let’s it’s holder down. So, although you may, rightly, be a bit worried now, thing ‘will’ fall into place – we’ll just all have to wait and see :-)

    “Certainly it is hard to measure good teaching”

    No, it is not! Good anything shines!

    Each and every student in your class knows the kind of teacher you are from their own personal experience, same with doctors and other professionals who provide a service too.

    Don’t forget, it is teachers who make or break a student after all. Good teachers therefore know how to make a student, while the bad ones are stupid, because they think that their student/s are stupid, when that is not the case – only for the young inexperienced student, it then becomes too late. Here, what is broken may never be fixed.

    Example; I love maths, physics, biology, you name it that has to do with science – but nobody can teach me chemistry!

    … we also have another saying Dr Aust, it is actually two lines of poetry, they go:

    And it got tighter and tighter until all the rings [on the chain] got stuck together,

    Then there was a sudden release when I thought that was impossible [to happen]

    Reflect on that :-)

  7. draust Says:

    Thanks Sam. I have formatted your comment a bit so it is easier to see what is a quote from my last comment and what is your reply.

    “Certainly it is hard to measure good teaching”

    No, it is not! Good anything shines!

    That is actually an interesting point. I think you are right that it is possible to tell good teaching when one sees it. But measuring it – as in “putting a numerical value on it, typically by grading it on all sorts of scales” is much harder. But that, of course, is what the modern Audit Culture wants to do.

    The problem is that what tends to happen is that one gets a half-baked way of grading it (based on ticking boxes on all sorts of grading scales) and that then becomes “the rating for teaching”, even though it was basically thought up on the back of an envelope. One can also, I think, see the same principle in all sorts of other areas of modern life.

  8. Sam Says:

    “I have formatted your comment a bit so it is easier to see what is a quote from my last comment and what is your reply”

    Can’t stop the marking, can you! :-D

    I wish my chemistry teacher was like that! … and I know all of you science guys and girls are itching to fix my spelling mistakes too! Another hopeless case … but they say it can be a sign of puuure … well, Ahem!

    … and about the rating, you rate your own and those around you too, don’t forget, you’ve just rated me in a small way! … You also continuously rate your kids, by their performance, ie, grades at school and how they fit and act withen the family and with friends on a personal level. Wife does not escape this rating either, nor do you … mental tick boxing ;-) … and you rate everybody else in your entourage for that matter! So, we’re all being rated all the time!

    Actually, this is not a bad thing if you look at it with a positive view, because it means ‘we care’ – So I’d personally prefer to be rated than not being rated at all, do you see what I mean?

    So, Why does it matter then if it is put on paper?! Don’t let it worry you. You do your best, then leave it to fit in it’s place by itself … and it will too most of the time, and the few times it doesn’t, then I have erred, or, it may work out to be for the best at the end.

    … and you should see Mrs wise here jumping up and down and screaming her head off when she’s worried … or whenever she thinks ‘she’ has reason! :-)

  9. Sam Says:

    “One can also, I think, see the same principle in all sorts of other areas of modern life.”

    Yes, there you go! :-)

  10. guthrie Says:

    I know i’m late, but would it be a reasonable summary to say that they want to make the university system more like a private business one, and to turn us more like the USA?

    The wider question is, what damage will be caused by this, which will probably lead to closure of some universities, increased gap between good and ok and poor ones, and generally damage the higher education sector?

  11. draust Says:

    Hi Guthrie

    I think that is a pretty fair summary. It is a common belief amongst people in the Universities that this Govt, and quite a few people in the last Labour one too, would like to see a US-style market in UK Higher Education. Indeed, there has been a strand of Tory thinking taking this view all the way back to the 80s, where Mrs T was widely understood to think that the UK only needed half a dozen (at most) Universities that did research.

    Some Lib Dems are claiming that the system actually voted through the Commons the other day will not deliver a full HE market, because the fees are paid upfront by the Govt and because people will pay back in an income-dependent way after graduation. I think Evan Harris was saying something like this in the Guardian. I am not convinced myself.

    I think it is an absolute certainty that Oxbridge, Imperial and UCL will charge £ 9K pa across the board. I expect most of the Russell Group to do the same, because to charge less would be seen as badging your product as inferior. The student body in the Russell Group Univs is overwhelmingly middle-class and, as one senior Professor put it to me the other day, “middle-class families will find a way” (i.e. to support their children at University and help the kids pay some of the fees). Some Univs may even argue they are charging £ 9K pa to those that can afford it specifically in order to fund bursaries and scholarships for the less well-off kids.

    Not that any of the above – i.e. the likelihood of charging £ 6K+ pa fees – means that there will be less of the kind of things Imperial are doing (see post) in the next year or two. I have heard similar noises about “concentration” and “disinvestment” from several other Russell Gp institutions. So watch this space.

    Getting back to fees, it seems to me to be much less certain what the ex-polys will do – though perhaps I only say that as it is the Russell Group I am familiar with. Down in the post-92 sector there are a lot more working-class kids who are likely to be put off by the prospect of substantial debt, however it is set up, and perhaps also (more contentiously?) a lot more degrees that prospective students are likely to feel are not worth £ 6 K+ a year in fees. I suppose the most optimistic estimate is that this part of the sector may adjust by moving to offering a lot more part-time provision. Another idea is for them to go to more “liberal arts” type combined studies degrees. But I imagine there is plenty of “Fear & Loathing” in the post-92 sector at the moment. A lot of people in the University sector predict there will be closures, or perhaps a very few closures and a lot of mergers-instead-of-closures.

    Anyway, the general answer, as to “will this cause further stratification of the sector” is – you bet it will. It cannot do otherwise, really.

  12. Kristina Says:

    And the axe finally fallen =( It is very unfortunate that the first people to be laid off are those who have the portfolios. I pray that other opportunities will land these people who rightfully deserve so.

  13. Neuroskeptic Says:

    I think the idea that teaching will become more highly valued because there’ll be a “market” in it is extremely naive.

    The main problem being that there can’t be a market in teaching because there’s no direct competition. A given student can’t compare the quality of teaching at two universities because 99% of the time they only study at one.

    What may well happen is that universities will market their teaching more heavily, but they have no incentive to actually improve teaching. Once someone’s signed up for the course, they’re pretty much stuck with it, changing uni is enormous hassle.

    So yes, there may well be a move towards making courses look better on paper (increasing the staff:student ratio, for example) but I suspect this will end up making teaching worse – because the way it will happen is that they’ll draft in research-focussed PhD students and postdocs to do the teaching. Some of them make excellent teachers, most don’t though.

  14. Neuroskeptic Says:

    The other way to make your teaching look more attractive on paper is to promise better exam results. Say you’re a student shopping for a physics degree. You’re just about willing to pay £9,000 for one of the lower-ranked Russell Group universities, but which one?

    The one that gives you the greatest chance of getting a first, probably. Because you will, quite rightly, reason that even if “grade inflation” becomes a problem 10 years down the line (which I think it will), and something has to be done about it, by then, you’ll be home and dry on the career ladder with your first…

  15. draust Says:

    Hi Neuro

    Perceptive points, most of which I would agree with.

    There is SOME incentive to improve teaching. The main basis is that students rating their course at the end of it via the NSS (National Student Survey) is seen to have a significant influence on prospective students, and therefore is something Universities care about. But most of the changes to how we do teaching, from my own experience and that of my friends in other places, have been to do with administration. Thus we get hassled more and more to fill in forms saying we have met students for “pastoral interviews”, to mark things in ways which make feedback more visible (e.g. annotating dissertations and simlilar stuff with online system like Grademark), and to return “attendance records” for tutorials.

    Some of these changes may be helpful (students like to see the comments in Grademark. for instance), but I think they are more driven by two recent trends. One is Universities’ fear of students contesting their assessment grades through the appeals system or even the courts. The other is the growth in Univs (especially in the last five yrs) of a cadre of graduate level administrators whose main job appears to be to hassle us academics to fill in all these endless forms. The second may well be a consequence of the first, since it is deemed that, to defend the quality of the teaching and assessment the student received at a tribunal, you have to be able to document every single piece of it with a bit of paper, or an electronic record. Another example, of course, of the endless “audit society” which is drowning everyone in red tape and bullshit.

    Coming on to another of your points, I think the Russell Group Universities are lairy about having PhD students / grad assts do much of the teaching in science (other than practical class demonstrating) these days, also partly for the “legal challenge” reasons (I only got tutorials from junior non-academic staff”). An alternative is to hire a lot of “teaching specialists” or “teaching fellows” (ex postdocs, typically with 2-4 yrs postdoc experience at our place). These positions, which are University-specific in title and exact role but are now widespread in the Russell Gp Univs, basically correspond to “Instructors” in the US system. The difference between these people and typical academics (in the UK) is that a teaching fellow can be timetabled for two to four times as many contact hrs as an academic whose contract requires research activity. The TFs don’t teach the final yr specialist units of Honours degrees, but otherwise do the same teaching as other academics, only much more of it.

    A common piece of cynical gossip in the Univs is that the main difference when students are paying £ 7-9K pa is that they will expect to pass – that is, it won’t change students’ expectation of the teaching so much as their expectation of their grades. With, likely, lawsuits to follow if they fail, or don’t get the grade they wanted. This is a bit like your final point, I think.

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