No logic in King’s College job cuts

Dorothy Bishop on the senseless purge at the Institute of Psychiatry

July 3, 2014

Source: Nick Shepherd

Redundancy as a response to financial stringency is always painful but it is nothing new in the academic sector. There are, however, some features in King’s College London’s recently announced plans that make them exceptional and raise serious questions about the competence of the university’s managers.

In mid May King’s staff received a document outlining plans to cut 120 academics – 15 per cent of the total – from the university’s schools of medicine and biomedical sciences and the Institute of Psychiatry (“Strike ballot over plans to cut health scholars”, News, 5 June). Not surprisingly, strike action over the proposal (aimed at cutting staff costs by 10 per cent) was backed last week by an overwhelming majority of University and College Union members at the institution.

More surprising has been the strong criticism the plans have elicited from those with experience in academic management at King’s. Senior people usually stick together in such situations, arguing that difficult decisions must be taken when the going gets tough. However, instead, we have King’s professor of psychiatric research Sir Robin Murray complaining in an online petition to King’s principal Sir Rick Trainor of the “incompetent and callous KCL management [that] is now so severely damaging [the Institute of Psychiatry] and its staff”.

For those at the institute, the “restructuring” pain was particularly keenly felt, since a smaller cull in 2010 was followed by promises that it would not happen again.

Another institute luminary, Sir Michael Rutter, co-wrote a letter with Murray to Trainor expressing strong criticism of the redundancy plans.

Yet another knight of the realm, Sir Simon Wessely, head of the institute’s department of psychological medicine, has told me of his concern about the loss of jobs in the institute, which has no spare capacity after the previous round of cuts. Wessely, who has just started a term as president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, also noted that the weakening of the premier UK institution for academic psychiatry could have negative consequences across the entire nation.

The British Medical Association has also condemned the proposal, not least because the university plans to adopt the highly controversial tactic, previously used by Queen Mary University of London, of identifying “at risk” staff on the basis of metrics such as research income and teaching contact hours. As I pointed out on Twitter, King’s seems to be intent on sacking staff because their research is not expensive enough.

The second odd feature of the purge at King’s is that it is taking place not in a struggling, second-rate organisation, but in an institution that was ranked 38th in the latest Times Higher Education World University Rankings. One challenge noted in the letter to staff was that of “maintaining and improving our position as one of the world’s leading institutions”. The proposed remedy seems bizarre. If you have an international reputation for outstanding research, are you really going to improve it by shedding the very staff who obtained it for you in the first place?

Furthermore, if you cut people out of a network of researchers, you don’t lose only their personal contribution: you also make life difficult for their collaborators and colleagues. Wessely likened the situation to a game of Jenga. This involves players successively removing wooden blocks from a tower until the point inevitably comes when the only ones left are structurally indispensable and the whole edifice comes crashing down.

If you create a culture where staff feel undervalued and threatened, you are also likely to lose not just those who are deemed to be underperforming but also those you want to retain. This happened at the time of the last cull, with high-achieving senior staff moving on and early career researchers taking their fellowships elsewhere.

The third unusual aspect of the King’s case is the presence of students at the forefront of the protests. It’s often said that today’s undergraduates are mere consumers, who care only about the price of beer in the union and the quality of their accommodation. But King’s students are showing their concern for the shabby treatment of academic staff, the lack of consultation and the potential loss of high-calibre teachers and supervisors. Some have complained that King’s appears to be prioritising buildings over people – a charge that appears to have force, despite denials by King’s vice-principal for health, Sir Robert Lechler.

I have a personal interest in these events. I trained at the Institute of Psychiatry in the 1970s, when I felt proud to be associated with such a renowned institution. At that time the buildings were shabby and the facilities limited, but this did not bother me. What mattered was being in a place that was buzzing with exciting ideas. It saddens me to see such a great institution brought to its knees by a management team that seems to treat King’s more like a business than an academic institution, intent on endless expansion whatever the academic cost.

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Reader's comments (20)

'Sir' Rick Trainor should be removed from office. His policies are damaging a world class institution.
There are a number of factual inaccuracies in this article which we’d like to correct. When we announced the restructuring taking place we stated that up to 120 academic jobs may go at King’s as a result of our need to control our costs, increase our income and raise our performance. As a result of a robust and thorough review process which has taken place over the last 6 weeks, we now know that less than half that number of roles remain provisionally at risk across the Schools of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences as well as the Institute of Psychiatry. In the IoP specifically only 13 staff remain provisionally at risk, not 50 as some commentators have claimed. We have not yet completed the formal consultation process, so it is somewhat premature for anyone to be quoting the final numbers concerned. It is a matter of regret that some of our own community have chosen to be publicly critical of the current restructuring process before engaging directly with senior management at King’s and without allowing the consultation process to conclude. With respect to the metrics selected for the restructure, they do indeed relate to teaching hours and research income but are far more complex and individualised than this suggests. Even once the restructuring is complete, we will have 25% spare capacity in our teaching capability across the three Schools concerned if all those who are scheduled to teach our students do so for an average of one full day a week. We do not believe this will have a disproportionate impact on our staff or our students as a result and will work to ensure that this is the case. We have equally sought to protect our research community as well as we can and to avoid any disproportionate impact through the changes we have to make, which, whilst regrettable, are essential. With respect to the assertion that King’s is placing value on ‘buildings over people’, this is quite simply not the case. 60 roles represents less than 3.2% of our academic workforce at King’s and we are very committed to ensuring that future generations of both students as well as research and other staff have the facilities including the infrastructure befitting a world-class university as we aspire to be. The world today is very different from that in the 1970s and the pressure of global competition for students, staff and funding has never been greater for universities like ours.
Hmm... A 'robust and thorough review'.... well, to borrow a phrase, they would say that, wouldn't they? As an interested observer of the Russell Group these last two decades, I think I can hazard a guess why people at King's have gone public with their concerns, rather than "engaging directly with senior management" and "allowing the consultation process to conclude". I'd suggest this is likely a result of the view, widespread amongst academics I talk to in UK Universities, that (i) senior managements hardly ever listen; (ii) 'consultations' in the sector are commonly a fig-leaf for 'fait accompli'; and (iii) public shaming is the only thing that Vice Chancellors and senior managers notice. Prof David Colquhoun's website at http://www.dcscience.net/ is a rich source of information for anyone wondering why such views have become commonplace.
As part of the student campaign, I find it ... outrageous that we are being accused of inaccuracies and not being supportive of consultation, when KCL decides to update us about redundancies via a comment on an article. This is the very first that I or any other campaigner has heard that there are now 60 members of staff at risk, instead of the larger numbers we have heard from unions and staff. There are no official updates on the website with these new figures, and we have received no emails or information directly. We have been forced to desperately try to make sense of contradictory and piecemeal scraps of information and heard the same lines trotted out again and again in response to our concerns. We have made every effort to directly engage senior management but been ignored, patronised or had no real engagement with our concerns. We directly emailed senior management with questions that have gone unanswered, engaged in meetings where our concerns have been brushed off with vague assurances, and had one formal response to our petition which we raised various issues with - we received no response to that. Our petition and our response were sent first to senior management, before making them public - they did not return the courtesy when they accused us of inaccuracies publicly, without contacting us prior. If anyone has been sabotaging a meaningful engagement and consultation, it is not the opposition to these redundancies - it is KCL senior management. I am glad to hear that the number of positions at risk is lower than the original maximum - I wonder if this may be due to students and staff highlighting how destructive cuts on this scale would be? There was never any sign that senior management had considered the impact themselves, and there *still* is no evidence of any risk assessment. The claims that there have been protections been put in place are *still* not backed up with any evidence of plans of this nature. The claims that this is essential are *still* not backed up by any transparent evidence of considering all alternatives. Unfortunately KCL's comment here follows the same pattern that the rest of their "engagement" has - instead of addressing concerns and inviting a productive and meaningful conversation with staff and students, it simply seeks to discredit us and throw out more statements lacking in evidence.
(The above comment cut a final clarification - I write this as an individual, though one heavily involved in the campaign. If KCL decides to make an official statement, we will happily provide an official response.)
I am surprised to learn that KCL now informs staff of critical information regarding their job safety via the comments section of a news website, rather than conveying this vital info to the people it concerns. Where should we expect our next update? I will wait urgently for your reply below the line at the Mail Online site.
There are a number of weasel-words and euphemisms in the response from KCL management. Readers may benefit from the following glossary: "Restructuring" = "Destruction" "Roles" = "People" "Complex and individualised" = "opaque" "robust and thorough" = "crude and demeaning" "at risk" = "permanently traumatised and betrayed" "consultation" = "sham" "our need to control our costs" = "our financial mismanagement" "3.2%" = a short term financial saving for which it is worth ruining for ever the trust, goodwill and morale of employees and students, the reputation of the University, and with it the ability to attract good researchers and students in future. Great job, guys.
@MR UPPITY, I am trying to introduce a new word in the English dictionary "Restruction", meaning destruction by restructuring @Colin Minchin, Rick Trainor should return his renumeration to KCL and Edward Byrne, who will take over as principal and president of King’s in September 2014 should state his position over the controversy. http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/news/monash-v-c-to-lead-kings-college-london/2005260.article @King's College London Who has authorised this text to appear under the College's name (what a stain for its history...)
The document sent to all staff said "Initial modelling indicates that up to 120 academic staff may be dismissed". This document was headed "CONFIDENTIAL – Not for further circulation" but soon appeared in public (see http://www.dcscience.net/?p=6607 ). Some senior academics still don't seem to have understood the blogosphere. It's really rather hard to keep secrets now, and that. on the whole, is very good thing. If the new response from Kings is correct, then we can infer that either the initial modelling was disastrously incompetent, or that it pays to make a fuss. The sad fact is that "engaging directly with senior management" usually gets you nowhere. Public shaming seems to work better. This itself suggests to me that some senior managers haven't quite got the hang of how to manage academics. Perhaps they have been on too many leadership courses.
I was pleased to hear in KCL's comment above that the number "at risk" is lower than I stated. Any reduction in the number of redundancies planned at KCL is most welcome. But is it not astonishing that a letter to the Independent last week (http://ind.pn/1qV8ANr), signed by all the heads of department at the Institute of Psychiatry, expressed concern that 50 staff (15% of total) were at risk at that institution? . These are not "some commentators" - they are the people who are responsible for the staff who are concerned, who apparently have not been kept informed of what is happening. We also hear in the comment from Amy Gillespie that the student body, who have been at the forefront of protests (see http://kclhealthsos.wix.com/stopkclredundancies#!student-response/cdi3) have been kept in the dark. My Twitter feed has comments from KCL staff who are relieved that the numbers are lower than previously stated, but dismayed that the first they hear about this is in a comment on a piece in the Times Higher. I fear that whatever the final size of the cull, severe damage has already been done - to morale among remaining staff, to relationships between academic staff and administration, to student confidence in the institution, and to KCL's international reputation. That this should have been done with the goal of enhancing the academic prestige of KCL is beyond belief.
Speaking as a Senior Lecturer at KCL, I'd like to express my anger at the utter idiocy shown by KCL senior management over this. Their sudden finding of a voice (silent or dismissive to their own staff during the 'consultation') is shameful: no regret over putting a larger number of people than 'necessary' through turmoil, accusatory tone over public criticisms of their kamikaze policy - dismissed when made privately, & the claim that remaining redundancies are essential to build the infrastructure "befitting a world-class university" (the present staff have built this reputation, whereas the present senior management are dismantling it). It's an embarrassing irony that it's taken the management's close inspection of its staff in the process of sacking them to discover that it would be detrimental to their own goal of "raising performance" to lose them; but their continuing game of Jenga is a blind one - the level of destruction caused by the removal of any such block cannot be easily predicted by the management (or anyone) given the complexity of the research/teaching network to which they belong (more so the removal of multiple blocks..). Now that the management have miraculously found that it is financially viable to have a much reduced shelving of staff, I urge them to discover some humility, acknowledge (at least to themselves) that they were wrong, and find a way to avoid ANY sackings - how about voluntary redundancies and a halt to future recruitment? Is it better to recruit a few hot-shot Professors, build slightly flashier buildings or to foster an atmosphere where the staff you've already employed feel valued and able to collaborate without worrying about hitting thoughtless targets for fear of being sacked the next time the managers lose their minds.
120. No wait, 60!...What a stupid attempt to save their face! With devastated KCL staff now having to connect to a news website to know they have 50% of chance of being fired. A really professional conduct. University of Excellence. Who owns the university? Why the don't the senior managers who created this mess move into a higher uni in the "top-league" where they can express their performance at best, since no one want them anymore at King's?
As a KCL student, I'm really shocked that KCL are now announcing brand new information on the subject through random public mediums. Seeing as this has not been officially communicated to staff, it rather gives the impression they're more concerned about saving public face than effectively engaging and communicating with those directly affected by this ongoing situation.
As a member of King’s in a Department where a high proportion of the staff who were eligible for sacking were put at risk, this letter raises a number of concerns. First, and said by many others, it is remarkable that the changes in the numbers are announced here, in the comments section of the THES. I do agree that while the consultation process is incomplete it is premature to be quoting numbers. But this is exactly what this comment does. Indeed, until now the only numbers formally given are the 120 potentially at risk positions, as given to staff when the cull was initially announced. I have not received or seen any official communication with regards to these elements of the restructuring. It is insulting to those at risk and all other staff that it was deemed appropriate to announce this important update here and not directly to staff. Second, is the statement that these changes will not have a disproportionate effect on staff or students. This is not backed up by any evidence. In fact, as a member of staff and a supervior/teacher of many students I can confidently say that this process HAS ALREADY had a significant effect on staff and students. The level of uncertainty has lead to many researchers feeling stressed, unappreciated and concerned about future research and collaborations. The protests from the students speak for themselves here. Clearly this comment from KCL considered these effects as acceptable, or proportionate. This is insulting and presumptive. Third, the comment makes the assertion that they ‘regret that some of our own community have chosen to be publicly critical of the current restructuring process before engaging directly with senior management at King’s.’ I have tried to engage with senior management about some real concerns. I am yet to receive a reply. I know of at least half a dozen students who have written to senior management expressing concerns. They are yet to receive a reply. I know of a number of senior staff who have attempted to engage senior management in discussion and they feel that the replies were ‘patronising’ and reflected an ‘unwillingness to engage in dialogue.’ Finally, this comment itself represents a huge failure of senior management to engage with staff. Going external with crucial information without first informing staff is behavior that staff and students are themselves being accused of! Maybe this comment tells us that this is not an official communication, or is bogus? If not bogus, it is at best worrying and at worse insulting and incompetent. Together, this comment from KCL sends a strong message that the senior management are more concerned with their reputation than the feelings of their own students and staff.
KCL staff today received the following email from management... "All staff within the schools of Medicine, Biomedical Sciences and Institute of Psychiatry are invited to an update by Professor Sir Robert Lechler on the restructure proposal, following the end of the collective consultation period. The sessions will update on progress and give people an opportunity to ask any questions they have. Sessions have been organised for Thursday 10 July" By sheer coincidence, that is the day that UCU are holding a day of strike action!!
For those interested in my answer @King's College London managers posting here their views please see: http://fanismissirlis.wordpress.com/2014/07/04/kings-college-london/ It will be an interesting choice for some. Will they wish to meet Professor Sir Robert Lechler, her Highness Princess Anne, or the academics and students of KCL forming picket lines in defense of their institution?
I have been riding the roller coaster of restructuring (mass redundancies) for a number of years now. The methods used to identify staff for redundancy are crude and inaccurate but the damage done to individuals and departments is immeasurable. The majority of academics love their jobs, put in more hours than they are paid for and a make huge contribution to the UK economy and society. Is it really too much to ask to be treated fairly and with some degree of humanity by those in charge of our institutions? Despite many conversations with numerous colleagues about restructurings/mass redundancies I have yet to hear of any real benefit to the academic community. Indeed most talk is of job insecurity and the challenges of maintaining research and delivering adequate teaching in the current climate. I have to conclude this can't be good for higher education in the UK. Watching events unfold at Kings, I think it is clear that the staff and students are more than aware of the damage being done. I hope that those with the power to make the greatest difference (i.e. those making the final decisions about staff cuts) will also begin to listen.
I have a suggestion for Rick Trainor and his colleagues at KCL that could help rescue the difficult situation in which they now find themselves, with a striking workforce and a hostile student body. They maintain that redundancy of a significant proportion of their staff is a difficult decision for them but the only way forward. They might convince people of their sincerity if they each took a step that would free up funds for a few of those jobs by cutting their own pay to the level of the Prime Minister, which I gather is £140K per annum. As someone who is on a high academic salary, but well below this level, I can reassure them that it is possible to have a very comfortable and prosperous life on such an income. As a gesture, this may only save a few of the jobs, but it would be very effective in convincing people that they did not take the redundancies lightly.
Although I sympathize with the protestors’ complaints about job cuts in the Schools of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences and the Institute of Psychiatry, it is striking that when, for instance, the Department of Philosophy at KCL makes several part-time teachers redundant, there is hardly a whisper of protest. Many of the part-time teachers in the Department of Philosophy have been teaching for quite a few years (in some cases, up to a decade), and as such have extremely valuable teaching experience. Students in the Department have protested the move, as it will damage the quality of their teaching, but the Department have refused to support their concerns. This lies at the intersection of two problems that should concern anyone who is dismayed at the state of our universities: (1) The casualization of academic labour (the Department of Philosophy's part-time teachers were on annual contracts, giving the Department a way to weasel out, by saying that contracts were simply "not being renewed"); (2) The privileging of research above teaching under all circumstances. It is particularly shocking that not a single member of the Department of Philosophy’s full-time staff has protested these redundancies, despite student dissatisfaction, given that (as regular readers of T.H.E. will recall) it was not so long ago that the students helped them to defend their jobs against an assault by KCL's management. Shame on all the staff who have kept quiet, safe in the knowledge that their own jobs are secure!
Ed Byrne is soon to take over from Rick Trainor as Principal of King's College London. No doubt the redundancies were announced with EB's knowledge and agreement, but it is not too late for him to follow the graceful way out of this mess, which is damaging to King's as well as to the individuals, colleagues and departments affected. The graceful way out is for him to declare that he needs time on the ground to evaluate the options and so the redundancy programme should be put on hold. A sensible discussion on "performance management" and capital expenditure versus human capital might then be possible. That's the only way I can see for Ed Byrne to save himself as well as King's.

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