No logic in job cuts metric

December 4, 2014

The redundancies currently taking place at the University of Warwick represent a revolution in the meaning and purpose of academic work.

Senior staff in departments that are deemed loss-making (the medical school and life sciences) are judged on a single metric: external research grants awarded to them over the past four years. With a few exceptions, every associate professor or professor whose success in raising research grants is less than an average of £90,000 (£75,000 in life sciences) per year faces being dismissed unless they can argue a special case in mitigation. The most remarkable feature of the process is that research success is not acceptable as an argument. You can be publishing regularly at the highest standard of excellence, you can have been entered for the research excellence framework as a 4* researcher, but if you have not got external research contracts you are disposable.

This is a reversal of the usual logic, which is that a research investigation requires resources and these can be purchased out of a grant: the grant is a means to an end. The quality of the research project is judged by its output in publications and the size of the grant is incidental. Some research does not require grant funding at all but can be excellent nonetheless. Different specialisms require different amounts of funding; but the fact that this is central to the argument, as the medical school is multidisciplinary, with researchers in social science as well as laboratory science, is ignored.

As a metric, grant income is at best a measure of activity, and is an input not an output. In the Warwick process that simple truth has gone out of the window. Grant income is regarded simply as money to help plug the gap in the budget – that the cash can be spent only on research resources linked to the particular project is ignored. The staff being targeted, who would once have been tenured academics, are on what are now called indefinite contracts and find themselves in a similar position to market traders whose success is judged by the amount of money they can make in a given period. Yet although their tenure may be just as insecure, this risk is not compensated with comparable pay, or (in the future) secure Universities Superannuation Scheme pensions.

Under these conditions many bright graduate students will avoid an academic career. The long-term consequence of this replacement of reasoned argument with half-baked financial short-termism will be that British universities will become intellectually mediocre.

Dennis Leech
President, Warwick UCU

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Reader's comments (5)

Well said.
Again, the THE has a duty to the academics who make up the majority of its readers, and to society as a whole, to remove the research income criterion from its own ranking methodology. Again, surely the best research institutions, and the best researchers, are not those who get the most income, but those who are most productive - that is, those who do the best research with the least money. That would make a better criterion. Both major parties in the UK are forecasting swingeing public expenditure cuts, from which it is really hard to see RCUK escaping while basic welfare doesn't, and certainly FEC must be under threat. Yet this is the only real source of 'big money' in the UK. So, strategically, too, it doesn't seem wise to put all a university's eggs in the grant-getting basket.
There is very sadly, a logic to the use of such an absurd metric. It is chillingly simple, the medical school will have be in deficit or about to be, thus costs will have to be cut; ie some staff will be sacked (made redundant). Why use such an absurd metric? because it will be legally defensible as objective.. It is precisely because it avoids ANY assessment at all of any other criteria that is its attraction. The cost benefit ratio of accidentally sacking some 'wrong' people will have been weighed against the time spent forming committees, carrying out multiple reviews, rows and possible financial loss at a tribunal on grounds of discrimination. Its logical, cynical, horrific and cruel.
@Jim_Sta Follow the link below to a legal warning by the former High Court Judge, Sir Michael Davies,against a logical, cynical, horrific and cruel future into which managers - not academics - are leading the academic sector.
@Fanis The world outlined by Davies has vanished. Read the UCU newsletter at Warwick to see how wicked this target culture has become. It was lab tested in Life Science there. Since nothing bad happened to Warwick, then they now plan to carry out first full road test in the Medical School. If it 'succeeds' then expect it to be adopted generally, pace Imperial. The logic is simple, it is at the moment a simple 'objective' way to sack staff without triggering legal problems thus cheap. As Warwick UCU point out, its retrospective target setting avoid any staff support or mentoring. If this 'bold' road test works, then the whole concept of tenure (even in its weak UK form) has vanished. Since its retrospective, the target can be whatever management decide it to be when they decide it to be. This is the sort of tyranny surely that Unions were set up to face down. The only way for this to be derailed is to make it expensive to management.

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