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.