Stop ‘selfish’ PIs holding back junior scholars, says QMUL head

Cash and frameworks can help but improving diversity within research really requires diversity as a core institutional value, says Colin Bailey

November 25, 2021
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Principal investigators who renew the contracts of postdoctoral researchers when it would be better to let them move on need to stop being “selfish”, a university leader said.

“That is disastrous for the individual,” Colin Bailey, president of Queen Mary University of London, told Times Higher Education’s THE Campus Live event. “Normally, it’s best for them to actually spread their wings and go work somewhere else, perhaps with another PI in another research area or at another organisation.

“We need the leadership to stop the PIs being selfish and to look after their staff and their career development.”

Discussing efforts to improve diversity in higher education, Professor Bailey also said that frameworks such as the Athena Swan charter and cash can help but, without having diversity as a central value, universities will not make headway.

“It's not just about cash, it’s about the culture and the values. If you don’t get that right, forget it,” Professor Bailey said.

“Chuck as many frameworks at us as you’d like, but actually it’s all about our values. If they align with our values, yes, that might help us. But if they don’t, I’m sorry, I will ignore them.”

Queen Mary was recently named the country’s top university for social mobility, according to a report by the Institute for Fiscal Studies in partnership with the Sutton Trust and Department for Education.

But focusing on diversity may mean sacrificing other areas, he acknowledged. “You look at other league tables, and we don’t do so well, because some of those metrics stop us doing what we believe as a university.”

Ninety per cent of students at Queen Mary attended state schools, 75 per cent are from an ethnic minority, 52 per cent are the first in their family to go to university and 23 per cent come from families whose taxable income is less than £10,000 per year, Professor Bailey explained.

Professor Bailey’s own story is one of social mobility: he left school at 16 and during a pay review at one of his first jobs he was told he was paid enough for “someone from his background. That comment changed my life. Because then I started to look around to see what was available,” he said, and was admitted to the University of Sheffield as part of a widening participation scheme.

“What I needed at that time was someone that I could look up to as a role model to see myself in those positions. And that’s what’s key at the moment. We need those role models,” he said.

Pushing the boundaries of knowledge required “bringing in people that have got the talent from different backgrounds, different traditions, different cultures coming together”.

However, people from different backgrounds will have different challenges, Professor Bailey said. “We’ve got to face up to that and often that’s where the funding I think is very important.”

Nevertheless, it is vital the UK does this, he said. “If we want to be a superpower, that’s the only way that the UK is going to manage this and push outside those boundaries of knowledge.”

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Reader's comments (3)

Is there an error in this article? It is “selfish” to renew a postdoctoral’s contract? And thus selfless to not renew it? Either that, or someone needs a very basic education in employment law!
I would have thought the PIs going the extra length to get their researcher contracts renewed and not thrown out of work would be the good ones, not the selfish ones... That's the most that many PIs can do ( all that's in their power, and often requires a lot of scrabbling around to find money in different budgets and a lot of bureaucracy) Am afraid this reads a wee bit like weasle-worded HR speak... pretending that giving someone a P45 is in their best interests really as it 'encourages them to explore new horizons.' . Presumably ( hopefully) that's not quite what the VC meant...
Colin Bailey once again proving how out of touch he is with the rest of the people on the ground. Maybe he could come round and actually speak to a few post-docs about the crappy career structure, the lack of job security and the erosion of permanent positions. Perhaps he could think a little a bit about the value of retaining some experienced bench staff to the benefit of all. Except they destroyed all the SO and SSO positions.