Reclaiming the University of Aberdeen

Guest Post by Professor Timothy Ingold, University of Aberdeen

We, staff and students of the University of Aberdeen, are angry. We are angry about the way our academic community and our commitment to education and scholarship have been eaten away by a corrosive regime of management that works by bullying and intimidation. We have watched in anger and dismay as fundamental principles of trust, professionalism and freedom of expression on which academic life depends have been crushed under an avalanche of mindless bullet points, dehumanising and dysfunctional IT systems, arbitrary directives and sham consultations. During the spring and summer of last year, amidst cuts to academic programmes, threats of redundancy and collapsing morale, this anger turned to outrage. In response, we mounted a campaign to claim our University back from the regime.

We launched the campaign, under the banner ‘Reclaiming our University’, on 15th October 2015. The off-campus hall we had hired for the occasion was packed with staff and students, and the atmosphere in the hall was electric. Our aim was not so much to protest – though there was plenty of that – as to think about how things could and should be done differently: about the kind of University we want, how it should be run, and how to achieve it. The idea was to use our anger to energise a programme of reconstruction: to turn the crisis into an opportunity to rebuild the University into the kind of institution that, in the present climate, we could only dream of.

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Why evaluating scientists by grant income is stupid

Opinion piece by Dorothy Bishop*

As Fergus Millar noted in a letter to the Times last year, ‘in the modern British university, it is not that funding is sought in order to carry out research, but that research projects are formulated in order to get funding.’

This topsy-turvy logic has become evident in some universities, with blatant demands for staff in science subjects to match a specified quota of grant income or face redundancy. David Colquhoun’s blog is a gold-mine of information about those universities who have adopted such policies. He notes that if you are a senior figure based in the Institute of Psychiatry in London, or the medical school at Imperial College London you are expected to bring in an average of at least £200K of grant income per annum. Warwick Medical School has a rather less ambitious threshold of £90K per annum for principal investigators and £150K per annum for co-investigators.

So what’s wrong with that? It might be argued that in times of financial stringency, Universities may need to cut staff to meet their costs, and this criterion is at least objective. The problem is that it is stupid. It damages the wellbeing of staff, the reputation of the University, and the advancement of science.

Effect on staff 

The argument about wellbeing of staff is a no-brainer, and one might have expected that those in medical schools would be particularly sensitive to the impact of job insecurity on the mental and physical health of those they employ. Sadly, those who run these institutions seem blithely unconcerned about this and instead impress upon researchers that their skills are valued only if they translate into money. This kind of stress does not only impact on those who are destined to be handed their P45 but also on those around them. Even if you’re not worried about your own job, it is hard to be cheerfully productive when surrounded by colleagues in states of high distress. I’ve argued previously that universities should be evaluated on staff satisfaction as well as student satisfaction: this is not just about the ethics of proper treatment of one’s fellow human beings, it is also common-sense that if you want highly skilled people to do a good job, you need to make them feel valued and provide them with a secure working environment.

Effect on the University

The focus on research income seems driven by two considerations: a desire to bring in money, and to achieve status by being seen to bring in money. But how logical is this? Many people seem to perceive a large grant as some kind of ‘prize’, a perception reinforced by the tendency of the Times Higher Education and others to refer to ‘grant-winners’. Yet funders do not give large grants as gestures of approval: the money is not some kind of windfall. With rare exceptions of infrastructure grants, the money is given to cover the cost of doing research. Even now we have Full Economic Costing (FEC) attached to research council grants, this covers no more than 80% of the costs to universities of hosting the research. Undoubtedly, the money accrued through FEC gives institutions leeway to develop infrastructure and other beneficial resources, but it is not a freebie, and big grants cost money to implement.

So we come to the effect of research funding on a University’s reputation. I assume this is a major driver behind the policies of places like Warwick, given that it is one component of the league tables that are so popular in today’s competitive culture. But, as some institutions learn to their costs, a high ranking in such tables may count for naught if a reputation for cavalier treatment of staff makes it difficult to recruit and retain the best people.

Effect on science

The last point concerns the corrosive effect on science if the incentive structure encourages people to apply for numerous large grants. It sidelines people who want to do careful, thoughtful research in favour of those who take on more than they can cope with. There is already a glut of waste in science, with many researchers having a backlog of unpublished work which they don’t have time to write up because they are busy writing the next grant.  Four years ago I argued that we should focus on what people do with research funding rather than how much they have. On this basis, someone who achieved a great deal with modest funding would be valued more highly than someone who was failed to publish many of the results from a large grant. I cannot express it better than John Ioannidis, who in a recent paper put forward a number of suggestions for improving the reproducibility of research. This was his suggested modification to our system of research incentives:

‘….obtaining grants, awards, or other powers are considered negatively unless one delivers more good-quality science in proportion. Resources and power are seen as opportunities, and researchers need to match their output to the opportunities that they have been offered—the more opportunities, the more the expected (replicated and, hopefully, even translated) output. Academic ranks have no value in this model and may even be eliminated: researchers simply have to maintain a non-negative balance of output versus opportunities.’


Ref: Ioannidis, J. (2014). How to Make More Published Research True. PLoS Medicine, 11 (10) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pmed.1001747


*Blogpost originally posted on 8 December at http://deevybee.blogspot.co.uk/2014/12/why-evaluating-scientists-by-grant.html

Staff satisfaction is as important as student satisfaction

Opinion piece by Dorothy Bishop, 13 November 2014

Universities have become obsessed with competition: it is no longer enough to do well; you have to demonstrate you are better than the rest. And to do that, you need some kind of metric. Organisations have grown up to meet this need, and to produce league tables that compare institutions on a range of characteristics, including research excellence, reputation and teaching.

The National Student Survey has become established as a major component of this process. It has run annually across all publicly funded Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) in the UK. It features prominently in student guides to the best universities, such as this one by the Guardian. There is no doubt that the survey has made universities more responsive to student views, and it is to be welcomed that reported student satisfaction levels have increased since the survey was introduced. Nevertheless, some, like Arti Agrawal have expressed concerns about universities introducing quick fixes that may produce higher ratings in the short term, but lower academic quality overall: ‘With increased tuition fees, students are seen as customers who must be kept happy, and the NSS is now a customer satisfaction survey’. We even have evidence that within some universities, student satisfaction is used as an index of the quality of the teaching staff.

It is perhaps not surprising then, that as the same time as we are told that students are getting happier and happier, academic staff seem to be growing ever more miserable. Now this could, of course, just be down to the fact that everyone likes a good moan1. But the impression one gets from reading the Times Higher Education and looking at stories anonymously contributed to CDBU’s Record the Rot archive is that there is more to it than that. The very same pressures that lead managers to treat students as consumers have led them to treat academic staff as dispensible ‘human resources’. The view of universities as institutions in constant competition with one another and the rest of the world has trickled down to the departmental level, destroying any sense of collegiality. In the long run, if teaching is done by a body of demoralised and ever-changing academics, this can only be bad for staff and students alike.

But this is only anecdote, and it would be good to have some data. The Times Higher Education started a Best Workplace Survey last year, which has the potential to provide just that. However, the sample was relatively small and self-selected. Findings such as 39 per cent of academics felt their health was negatively affected by their work, and one third felt their job was not secure are hard to interpret given the vagaries of sampling. Is this typical, or was it the most disaffected who replied? Concerns about the low response rate and potential for bias meant that the THE decided not to report results by institution. My guess is that if we had proper survey data, and if staff satisfaction were incorporated into ‘best university’ rankings, then rank orderings might change quite dramatically. Furthermore, institutions sacked staff to improve rankings might find their strategy backfiring.

The THE’s workplace survey for 2015 is now live. I would encourage everyone working in higher education to take part, whether or not you have something you want to moan about. We need to get an adequate database on this topic so that we can have a solid basis for identifying those institutions that are genuinely at the top of the league, in terms of their treatment of staff, versus those who achieve a high status on other indicators while presiding over an anxious and demoralised staff.

1 Especially the English. I can thoroughly recommend this book for an amusing and informative account: Fox, K. (2005). Watching the English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour. London: Hodder & Stoughton.