UK Academia is Dying from Over-Management: The Queen Mary Scandal

(July 4th, 2012) At UK universities business culture rules at the expense of academic freedom. In Queen Mary University London things are now so bad that academic staff lose their jobs when their research metrics no longer match the ‘aspirations’ of university management. Jeremy Garwood reports.

Once upon a time, UK universities offered stable employment to talented researchers. A ‘tenured’ academic job as a lecturer gave researchers the opportunity to continue doing their research while teaching and supervising undergraduate and research students. It was considered normal that such an academic job was ‘for life’ (barring extreme abuse).

Academic tenure at UK universities was abolished by the Thatcher government in the 1980s. It was argued that more employment flexibility was required to manage universities more efficiently, i.e. to do more with less money. Throughout the last two decades, there has been a rise in the numbers of short-term contract jobs, whether as post-doctoral researchers or course teachers. Nevertheless, the distant hope for post-docs has always been that if they continue to do good research and publish well, they may eventually get a secure academic job. Although university lecturers no longer have tenure, their jobs are not based on fixed term contracts and it has just been assumed that the whole entity of university education is based on the long-term stability of its academic staff.

However, at Queen Mary University London we are seeing just how far the UK academic employment situation has degraded. University management has now decided that academic staff can be hired and fired the moment their research ‘performance’ falls below certain numerical values.

So far, 11 biologists from the School of Biological and Chemical Sciences (SBCS) and 29 medical academics (from the School of Medicine and Dentistry) have been told they will be made “redundant” this summer. The underlying reasons why the university has decided to sack so many of its staff (25% of its biologists!) are explained in more detail in the Lab Times magazine article: “UK university culture: Academic Values No Longer Add Up", issue 4-2012.

Why are they losing their jobs? Because Queen Mary University London has a Strategic Plan for 2010-2015 that aims to raise its ranking in the UK university league table. Here, a university’s position is directly related to its government research funding – the higher the position on the ladder, the higher the university’s research income will be.

An example of how it works

Fanis Missirlis is one of the biologists who has been targetted by the university’s ‘redundancy’ criteria and has publicly protested about the injustice of what Queen Mary are doing to its academic staff. Missirlis came to QMUL in 2007 with a good research profile that was used to raise the RAE score of the university in 2008. The university were happy to accept him then.

At QMUL he continued his research while undertaking a considerable teaching load in biology. However, at the beginning of 2012, the biologist learned that the university’s latest Strategic Plan had changed priorities. Now it was only interested in research. Especially research that could be measured against numerical standards!

By the university's metrical standards, announced retrospectively (i.e. too late for him to have done much about it), Missirlis should have published at least once in a ranked journal. Meanwhile, there has been no apparent attempt to understand the scientific value of his research, whether it was well done, or how it was judged by other scientists in the same field. Missirlis also disputes their calculations of his 'required' research income.

Discipline or dismissal

Fanis Missirlis and John Allen, Professor of Biochemistry at QMUL, both publicly questioned the ‘transparency’ of the selection process in a letter to The Lancet. In particular, they doubt whether Matthew Evans, the Head of Biology, could have passed the metrics test. In response, Queen Mary university announced that Missirlis and Allen would both be subject to formal disciplinary action.

However, before the disciplinary committee has had time to meet, Fanis Missirlis has already been told, with one day’s notice, that his last day of work at the university was on Friday, June 29th. Professor Matthew Evans, Head of School, promptly informed him that: “I will therefore be closing your email account and electronic access to Queen Mary IT systems, cancelling your security card and ensuring that you cannot access the building, your office or laboratory. I am assuming that all the contents of your office and laboratory were either purchased on Queen Mary funds or on grants which have now terminated and therefore are the property of Queen Mary. It may be the case that you have personal effects which you may wish to collect and you are welcome to arrange to do so by contacting Alan Philcox and/or Sue Brosnan who will accompany you to your office.”

As David Colquhoun, emeritus Professor of Pharmacology at UCL, put it in his blog: “Good scientists are being treated like criminals!”

The ‘Academic Witch Hunt’ in the Medical School

The situation at QMUL’s School of Medicine and Dentistry (SMD) has been equally grim. SMD is composed of St Bartholomew's Hospital Medical College, and the London Hospital Medical College (England's oldest medical school) both of which merged with Queen Mary in 1995. In the 2008 research assessment exercise (RAE), SMD was ranked “first among the London medical schools and fourth nationally”. Surely this is in line with the current ‘aspirations’ of Queen Mary’s management? Why do they need to get rid of 43 staff, including 29 academics?

Apparently someone (and presumably not the academics in question) made a projected accounting error of £3 million in the school’s budget for 2012-2013. Therefore, to save money (and balance the books), costs must be cut. The management has decided to cut staff. But who will go? Those who fail the research metrics!

In “Bullying at Barts” (The Lancet, 379, 24th March 2012), editor Richard Horton described anger among academic staff at the approach taken by the medical school’s Dean of Research towards “greatly admired colleagues” using “bully boy instruments” to upset highly valued staff. He wrote that “many see the Dean as discredited and are now trying to pull the institution back from the brink of self-immolation.” Subsequently, a senior lecturer sent a letter to The Lancet protesting at the “scandalous” criticism of the university’s leadership and asking that it should be retracted “immediately”. However, as Horton explained: “The difficulty is that we have received considerable documentation to support and strengthen the original allegations” (The Lancet 379, 7th April 2012).

In what Horton says evolved into an “Academic Witch Hunt”, the staff were targetted based on research and educational criteria, clinical contribution and ‘strategic fit’. But “the criteria have been bent and twisted to fit the School’s needs.”

Allegations include that: performance data were not checked and confirmed with academic staff before their jobs were designated “at risk”; data were incorrect or incomplete; academics were judged on the journal in which they published (“a notoriously unreliable measure”); journals were not ranked by specialists, leaving many journals wrongly categorised; when judging journals, only first and last authors counted, i.e. ‘middle authors’ were deprioritised “undermining the notion of collaborative science”; the whole selection process was “non-transparent” and “some criteria were so ambiguous that the university could keep anyone they liked no matter if they’d met other criteria or not.”

“Is Queen Mary University of London trying to commit scientific suicide?”

Asks David Colquhoun in his recent blog entry. His reaction is not just due to what has happened at QMUL over the last few months but also to what management are proposing to do next: A future performance in ‘D3’!

So far, 11 academic staff in biology have ‘failed’ the metrical test but what will happen to the survivors? The university ominously notes that their criteria “are useful as entry standards into the new School, but they fall short of the levels of activity that will be expected from staff in the future. These metrics should not, therefore, be regarded as targets for future performance.”

This means that those who have survived the redundancy criteria this time will simply have to do better in the future. But what is to reassure them it won’t be their turn next time should they, at any point, fail to match the numbers?

To help them achieve the required level of research perfection, Queen Mary is proposing to introduce ‘D3’ performance management. Based on some kind of ‘administrative physics’, D3 is shorthand for ‘Direction x Delivery x Development.’ Apparently we are told that “all three are essential to a successful team or organisation. The multiplication indicates that where one is absent/zero, then the sum is zero!”

Let us be in no doubt, D3 is based on principles of accountability: “A sign of a mature organisation is where its members acknowledge that they face choices, they make commitments and are ready to be held to account for discharging these commitments, accepting the consequences rather than seeking to pass responsibility.” Inspired?

Furthermore, meetings for evaluation may get frequent: “Where contribution is meeting expectations, 3-4 further meetings a year are recommended, particularly where the reviewee is in their early career.” But, don’t forget: “If performance is still short of requirements, the reviewer reports to the Head of School in order that the Head may consider instigating an appropriate formal procedure.” Encouraged?

Welcome to Queen Mary but don’t ‘count’ on staying too long!

However, as David Colquhoun remarked: “What the managers at Queen Mary have failed to notice is that the best academics can choose where to go.” Furthermore: “What scientist in their right mind would want to work at QMUL, now that their dimwitted assessment methods, and their bullying tactics, are public knowledge?”

Jeremy Garwood

Picture: Fotolia/KAR

Last Changes: 08.10.2012