'Random slaughter offset by poaching' (1 of 3)

August 16, 2012

Few will disagree with Simon Gaskell's fine summary of the past and present merits of Queen Mary, University of London ("From here to posterity", Opinions, 9 August), least of all those who join with us in challenging the methods now introduced to consolidate the gains of recent years.

However, acute problems have emerged, chief of which is the use of derivative publication and related "metrics" to identify allegedly underperforming individual members of staff. College authorities seem reluctant to acknowledge that this primary tool of performance management is widely discredited by an increasing number of rigorous studies. That Gaskell gives just one sentence to the matter in his apologia overlooks the instinctive outrage that academics everywhere feel if careers are destroyed by decimal points in spurious calculations. Metrics might, at a pinch, mirror the best and the worst scholarly work when reduced to averages for departmental comparisons. However, when scaled down to individuals - and especially at the margins where most nascent academics are to be found - they are meaningless. Any judgement based on them amounts to a lottery.

Here we point to the unintended consequences of restructuring already in evidence. These include undermining morale in the schools and departments concerned; the flight of talented colleagues to other institutions; the consignment of teaching to lecturers in casual employment or those deemed unfit for research; scandalous gender disparity; and the lopsided, counterproductive allocation of resources. When staff are dismissed, replacements can come only from other institutions that have been willing to invest in people, research and scholarship. As a part of normal academic life, mobility is acceptable, even desirable, but when enforced on the scale envisaged at Queen Mary, it is random slaughter offset by poaching.

The traditions of the college do indeed demand that high standards are set and maintained. For 125 years such standards have been achieved by common sense and collegiality, fostering mutual trust and respect. We see no necessity, and no intelligence, in resorting to invidious instruments of fear and interpersonal rivalry. We deplore the growing use in universities of bogus management methods that have consistently failed elsewhere.

David Bignell, emeritus professor of zoology, Queen Mary, University of London; Gavin Vinson, emeritus professor of biochemistry, Queen Mary, University of London; Don Braben, honorary professor of research innovation, University College London; John Allen, professor of biochemistry, Queen Mary, University of London; Rachel Ashworth, lecturer in physiology, Queen Mary, University of London; Brendan Curran, senior lecturer in genetics, Queen Mary, University of London; Mike Gaster FRS, professor in experimental aerodynamics, Queen Mary, University of London; Keith Jensen, lecturer in psychology, Queen Mary, University of London; Chris Lawn, professor of thermo-fluids engineering, Queen Mary, University of London; Robin Maytum, senior lecturer in biological science, University of Bedfordshire; Ralph Stanewski, professor of neurobiology, Queen Mary, University of London; Angelika Stollewerk, reader in evolutionary developmental biology, Queen Mary, University of London; Ralf Stanewsky, professor of neurobiology, Queen Mary, University of London.

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