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Bad financial management at Kings College London means VC Rick Trainor is firing 120 scientists

June 7th, 2014 · 14 Comments

Jump to follow-up

Stop press. Financial report cast’s doubt on Trainor’s claims

Science has a big problem. Most jobs are desperately insecure. It’s hard to do long term thorough work when you don’t know whether you’ll be able to pay your mortgage in a year’s time. The appalling career structure for young scientists has been the subject of much writing by the young (e.g. Jenny Rohn) and the old, e.g Bruce Alberts. Peter Lawrence (see also Real Lives and White Lies in the Funding of Scientific Research, and by me.

Until recently, this problem was largely restricted to post-doctoral fellows (postdocs). They already have PhDs and they are the people who do most of the experiments. Often large numbers of them work for a single principle investigator (PI). The PI spends most of his her time writing grant applications and traveling the world to hawk the wares of his lab. They also (to variable extents) teach students and deal with endless hassle from HR.

The salaries of most postdocs are paid from grants that last for three or sometimes five years. If that grant doesn’t get renewed. they are on the streets.

Universities have come to exploit their employees almost as badly as Amazon does.

The periodical research assessments not only waste large amounts of time and money, but they have distorted behaviour. In the hope of scoring highly, they recruit a lot of people before the submission, but as soon as that’s done with, they find that they can’t afford all of them, so some get cast aside like worn out old boots. Universities have allowed themselves to become dependent on "soft money" from grant-giving bodies. That strikes me as bad management.

The situation is even worse in the USA where most teaching staff rely on research grants to pay their salaries.

I have written three times about the insane methods that are being used to fire staff at Queen Mary College London (QMUL).
Is Queen Mary University of London trying to commit scientific suicide? (June 2012)
Queen Mary, University of London in The Times. Does Simon Gaskell care? (July 2012) and a version of it appeared th The Times (Thunderer column)
In which Simon Gaskell, of Queen Mary, University of London, makes a cock-up (August 2012)

The ostensible reason given there was to boost its ratings in university rankings. Their vice-chancellor, Simon Gaskell, seems to think that by firing people he can produce a university that’s full of Nobel prize-winners. The effect, of course, is just the opposite. Treating people like pawns in a game makes the good people leave and only those who can’t get a job with a better employer remain. That’s what I call bad management.

At QMUL people were chosen to be fired on the basis of a plain silly measure of their publication record, and by their grant income. That was combined with terrorisation of any staff who spoke out about the process (more on that coming soon).

Kings College London is now doing the same sort of thing. They have announced that they’ll fire 120 of the 777 staff in the schools of medicine and biomedical sciences, and the Institute of Psychiatry. These are humans, with children and mortgages to pay. One might ask why they were taken on the first place, if the university can’t afford them. That’s simply bad financial planning (or was it done in order to boost their Research Excellence submission?).

Surely it’s been obvious, at least since 2007, that hard financial times were coming, but that didn’t dent the hubris of the people who took an so many staff. HEFCE has failed to find a sensible way to fund universities. The attempt to separate the funding of teaching and research has just led to corruption.

The way in which people are to be chosen for the firing squad at Kings is crude in the extreme. If you are a professor at the Institute of Psychiatry then, unless you do a lot of teaching, you must have a grant income of at least £200,000 per year. You can read all the details in the Kings’ “Consultation document” that was sent to all employees. It’s headed "CONFIDENTIAL – Not for further circulation". Vice-chancellors still don’t seem to have realised that it’s no longer possible to keep things like this secret. In releasing it, I take ny cue from George Orwell.

"Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed: everything else is public relations.”

There is no mention of the quality of your research, just income. Since in most sorts of research, the major cost is salaries, this rewards people who take on too many employees. Only too frequently, large groups are the ones in which students and research staff get the least supervision, and which bangs per buck are lowest. The university should be rewarding people who are deeply involved in research themselves -those with small groups. Instead, they are doing exactly the opposite.

Women are, I’d guess, less susceptible to the grandiosity of the enormous research group, so no doubt they will suffer disproportionately. PhD students will also suffer if their supervisor is fired while they are halfway through their projects.

An article in Times Higher Education pointed out

"According to the Royal Society’s 2010 report The Scientific Century: Securing our Future Prosperity, in the UK, 30 per cent of science PhD graduates go on to postdoctoral positions, but only around 4 per cent find permanent academic research posts. Less than half of 1 per cent of those with science doctorates end up as professors."

The panel that decides whether you’ll be fired consists of Professor Sir Robert Lechler, Professor Anne Greenough, Professor Simon Howell, Professor Shitij Kapur, Professor Karen O’Brien, Chris Mottershead, Rachel Parr & Carol Ford. If they had the slightest integrity, they’d refuse to implement such obviously silly criteria.

Universities in general. not only Kings and QMUL have become over-reliant on research funders to enhance their own reputations. PhD students and research staff are employed for the benefit of the university (and of the principle investigator), not for the benefit of the students or research staff, who are treated as expendable cost units, not as humans.

One thing that we expect of vice-chancellors is sensible financial planning. That seems to have failed at Kings. One would also hope that they would understand how to get good science. My only previous encounter with Kings’ vice chancellor, Rick Trainor, suggests that this is not where his talents lie. While he was president of the Universities UK (UUK), I suggested to him that degrees in homeopathy were not a good idea. His response was that of the true apparatchik.

“. . . degree courses change over time, are independently assessed for academic rigour and quality and provide a wider education than the simple description of the course might suggest”

That is hardly a response that suggests high academic integrity.

The students’ petition is on Change.org.

Follow-up

The problems that are faced in the UK are very similar to those in the USA. They have been described with superb clarity in “Rescuing US biomedical research from its systemic flaws“, This article, by Bruce Alberts, Marc W. Kirschner, Shirley Tilghman, and Harold Varmus, should be read by everyone. They observe that ” . . . little has been done to reform the system, primarily because it continues to benefit more established and hence more influential scientists”. I’d be more impressed by the senior people at Kings if they spent time trying to improve the system rather than firing people because their research is not sufficiently expensive.

10 June 2014

Progress on the cull, according to an anonymous correspondent

“The omnishambles that is KCL management

1) We were told we would receive our orange (at risk) or green letters (not at risk, this time) on Thursday PM 5th June as HR said that it’s not good to get bad news on a Friday!

2) We all got a letter on Friday that we would not be receiving our letters until Monday, so we all had a tense weekend

3) I finally got my letter on Monday, in my case it was “green” however a number of staff who work very hard at KCL doing teaching and research are “orange”, un bloody believable

As you can imagine the moral at King’s has dropped through the floor”

18 June 2014

Dorothy Bishop has written about the Trainor problem. Her post ends “One feels that if KCL were falling behind in a boat race, they’d respond by throwing out some of the rowers”.

The students’ petition can be found on the #KCLHealthSOS site. There is a reply to the petition, from Professor Sir Robert Lechler, and a rather better written response to it from students. Lechler’s response merely repeats the weasel words, and it attacks a few straw men without providing the slightest justification for the criteria that are being used to fire people. One can’t help noticing how often knighthoods go too the best apparatchiks rather than the best scientists.

14 July 2014

A 2013 report on Kings from Standard & Poor’s casts doubt on Trainor’s claims

Download the report from Standard and Poor’s Rating Service

A few things stand out.

  • KCL is in a strong financial position with lower debt than other similar Universities and cash reserves of £194 million.
  • The report says that KCL does carry some risk into the future especially that related to its large capital expansion program.
  • The report specifically warns KCL over the consequences of any staff cuts. Particularly relevant are the following quotations
  • Page p3 “Further staff-cost curtailment will be quite difficult …pressure to maintain its academic and non-academic service standards will weigh on its ability to cut costs further.”
  • page 4 The report goes on to say (see the section headed outlook, especially the final paragraph) that any decrease in KCL’s academic reputation (e.g. consequent on staff cuts) would be likely to impair its ability to attract overseas students and therefore adversely affect its financial position.
  • page 10 makes clear that KCL managers are privately aiming at 10% surplus, above the 6% operating surplus they talk about with us. However, S&P considers that ‘ambitious’. In other words KCL are shooting for double what a credit rating agency considers realistic.

One can infer from this that

  1. what staff have been told about the cuts being an immediate necessity is absolute nonsense
  2. KCL was warned against staff cuts by a credit agency
  3. the main problem KCL has is its overambitious building policy
  4. KCL is implementing a policy (staff cuts) which S & P warned against as they predict it may result in diminishing income.

What on earth is going on?

16 July 2014

I’ve been sent yet another damning document. The BMA’s response to Kings contains some numbers that seem to have escaped the attention of managers at Kings.

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Tags: Academia · assessment · HEFCE · management bollocks · managerialism · metrics · Rick Trainor · science · UUK

14 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Avoided Cranium // Jun 7, 2014 at 16:24

    It seems to me that this is all part of the increasing commercialisation of universities after Blair’s meddling, and more latterly “No-Brains Willetts”.
    Universities are just grubby businesses now – marketing, profit and expansion take priority over maintaining academic standards and pushing back the frontiers of knowledge.

  • 2 Fanis // Jun 7, 2014 at 17:15

    I wish things were so good as you describe.

    A few examples to illustrate points were you are being very generous to the managers:

    My former colleagues at QMUL have been told that senior management wishes to generate 15 million in surplus this year. As the final year project students (the ones that passed stringent criteria and were accepted) are about to start working in labs – a freeze was declared in spending from College accounts. A small budget allocated for their research projects is therefore “unfortunately” not available for these projects, but will be saved for future restructurings and pay-offs. 

    Another example relates with the setting of “objective criteria”. Managers have all the data in front of them for their staff when they set the “thresholds”. This means they can handpick for dismissal whoever does not conform to the degrading treatment of students as customers.

    They can also clear the UK from researchers who are concerned about science and replace them with those who care more about running a successful business (and gain access to the funding committees etc.). Honesty (and transparency by the way) is a terrible enemy when trying to complete for limited resources in the hands of closed circles.

    How many institutions or principal investigators accepting a post-doctoral fellow to work with them still accept at the same time the (shared) responsibility for the fellow to find a suitable position after his time in the lab?

    An institution is as strong as its constituents are. The reason that the UK has become hostile to science and scientists is simple. It has taken away their institutions and handed them to profiteers. Many of the traditional freedoms – required for any university to serve its purpose – are now serving a small cast to make their small fortunes, on the back of students and academics. Their sufferring has not been brought to light, perhaps because Journalists are also facing their own managers and legal supervisors.

    The stoning of a woman is generally condemned in the UK. I see little difference in the stoning of academics it permits. To their physical extermination – if they do not conform. Beware of the consequences.

  • 3 deevybee // Jun 8, 2014 at 08:13

    That document shows complete contempt for the academic staff.

    It’s called a ‘Consultation document’ but there is no evidence that any consultation will be sought – as far as I can make out the document dates from May 2014, and the timetable for sackings is in July.

    And the overall aim is to improve their institution’s reputation. Words fail me.

  • 4 David Colquhoun // Jun 8, 2014 at 11:36

    @deevybee

    Actually, it might be even worse than that.  I’m told that the confidential document was initially made available to UCU officials – not all staff – and was made available on the College intranet only after UCU informed HR of their intention to circulate it on 16th May.

  • 5 deevybee // Jun 8, 2014 at 12:08

    *There is a petition here:

    http://www.change.org/en-GB/petitions/rick-trainor-stop-kcl-health-school-redundancies

    I have signed it, with the following comment:

    This is not only bad management, but it is also crass. The purported goal is “maintaining and improving our position as one of the world’s leading institutions”. It’s not clear how gaining a reputation for appalling treatment of staff is going to do that. Also,
    it’s left unclear whether the ultimate goal is a smaller workforce, or
    whether KCL wants to attract research superstars to replace the people it sacks. It’s hard to see how the former could improve its position as a leading institution, and it’s also hard to see how KCL will attract superstars when they hear about its disdainful treatment of its employees.

    The ‘confidential’ document sent to staff, available on David Colquhoun’s blog, also is described as a ‘consultation’ document, yet it is all too apparent that the decisions have already been made.

    Finally, a reliance on grant income as the measure of research quality shows a totally cynical attitude to research, whereby the more expensive you can make it, the more it is valued.

    I am ashamed to be an alumnus of the Institute of Psychiatry when its senior staff are involved in such a shameful exercise.

  • 6 David Colquhoun // Jun 8, 2014 at 13:28

    Or, as you put it so succinctly on twitter,

    Dorothy Bishop @deevybee

    to improve their reputation, KCL will sack loadsa staff cos their research isn’t expensive enough. bit.ly/1oJVz77 Hmm!

  • 7 Dr Aust // Jun 9, 2014 at 12:38

    Well said, David and Dorothy. The London Colleges seems to have been overtaken by attacks of madness. I can’t help think it is their proximity to the toxic institutions of the City of London and Parliament that have fostered this ‘world class’ nonsense. Both of my parents graduated from King’s at the start of the 60s, and they would be ashamed. My dad, like you, knew Peter Higgs (at King’s in the 50s in my dad’s case) and Higgs stands out as another of those who would have been canned under the kind of regime King’s are advocating. Though not King’s men, I doubt A.V. Hill or Andrew Huxley would have made the cut either.

    The Grandees of UK Science have been depressingly silent about all this, or seem simply to believe that keeping a small ‘cadre’ of elite long-term funding types up at the Crick, and the LMB, will be enough to preserve innovators. I wrote an article some years ago criticising Paul Nurse for seeming to promote this kind of idea. I’m completely with you and others that this is the counsel of despair. Who would enlist in science as a grad student if your fate is the ‘Postdocalypse’ followed , if you are the lucky 1 in 20, by annual fear of target-based redundancy?

  • 8 Jack Spratt // Jun 17, 2014 at 16:19

    *Whilst the particulars here may be ugly, the larger problem is how to fund research.  Are taxpayers who struggle to get by supposed to cough up their hard earned money to fund science?  Should science be allowed to use the State as a coercive organization to extract from the public at large billions of dollars, much of which is pure waste and poppycock, to finance a life style that is no longer relevant to anything post enlightenment?

    One of the more apparent problems plaguing this area is the total lack of imagination and creativity applied to funding where coercion seems to be the method of choice.

    I fear that universities, as monolithic, bureaucracies of socialism, are in for a rude awakening and will be crashing all over the civilized world as they try to maintain an internal logic more suited to the Middle Ages.

  • 9 David Colquhoun // Jun 18, 2014 at 08:49

    @Jack Spratt

    I’m puzzled about whether your comment is aimed at science, or against socialism.

    There will always be an argument about how much it’s sensible to spend on science, but I hope you are not doubting the benefits that it’s brought.  It always amuses me when people use the internet to preach against science. It doesn’t seem to occur to them that the medium they are using was born out of public money.

    The plaque for Christopher Wren bears the epitaph

    LECTOR, SI MONUMENTUM REQUIRIS, CIRCUMSPICE.

    Reader, if you seek his memorial – look around you.

    My point here was, that by failing to plan for the obvious downturn, Kings plans to throw 120 people out of work, and, if they can’t pay their mortgages, out of their homes too.  And they plan to do it by a criterion that is utterly absurd.  As Dorothy Bishop put itOne feels that if KCL were falling behind in a boat race, they’d respond by throwing out some of the rowers” 

    I’ve written a bit about why taxpayers’ money should be spent on education in “Why should a postman pay for your university education?“, but I expect that you regard provision of free education as socialism, so you may not agree with it.

  • 10 neongolden // Jun 23, 2014 at 12:40

    One of the student campaigners here.

    Firstly just to say thank you for writing about this and helping to bring attention to these proposals and the horrendous way they have been handled. Also thanks for linking to our site and I’m glad it’s not just us that saw Lechler’s response as attacking strawmen and whole-heartedly missing the point. 

    Short-notice but if anyone reading this who shares our concerns is free, we are demonstrating outside the College Council Meeting TOMORROW (Tuesday 23rd June) alongside staff, UCU and BMA members, and all support is very welcome. We will be gathering in the main quad outside the Somerset House East Wing of Strand Campus, in Central London, from 16.45, before the meeting begins at 17:00. You can email the campaign at stopkclredundancies@gmail.com for more details (or to get involved in any other way), but also feel free to just turn up tomorrow!

  • 11 amateurpiphologist // Jul 4, 2014 at 14:54

    Delightfully vague email below:

    Message sent on behalf Professor Sir Robert Lechler, Vice-Principal (Health)

    Dear colleagues

    I’m writing to update you on the proposals to restructure the School of Medicine, School of Biomedical Sciences and the Institute of Psychiatry. 

    As you are aware, these changes are part of a long-term plan to rebalance finances across the College and allow us to achieve our ambitions as a world-class university in an environment where competition for students, staff and funding has never been greater.  While it is always extremely difficult to lose any member of staff, we believe that we must reduce our academic salary costs to ensure a sustainable and successful future for the three Health Schools.

    After a robust review process that gave particular attention to maintenance of our specialist teaching programmes and the related student experience, we are now able to confirm that the number of staff who remain provisionally at risk of redundancy is less than half the upper limit of 120 posts set out in the original proposal.  We are not able to confirm the final number at risk until the end of the collective consultation period.

    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 negative impact through the changes we have to make.

    The Heads of Departments and Divisions are in contact with the individuals still provisionally at risk and are providing them with support and guidance on next steps.  At the end of the collective consultation process it is our intention to hold individual meetings with the staff affected.

    My colleagues and I appreciate the strength of feeling from staff and students concerning these changes which, whilst
    regrettable, are essential.  I look forward to the opportunity to update you more fully on the outcome of the consultation at the forthcoming staff briefings, details of which we will confirm very soon.

    Kind regards

     

    Professor Sir Robert Lechler

    Vice-Principal (Health)

  • 12 David Colquhoun // Jul 5, 2014 at 20:19

    @amateurpiphologist

    I would find that letter pretty insulting. It seems to say much what was first announced in a comment in Times Higher Education. That’s hamfisted management if I ever saw it.

    It was bad management to take on too many people in the first place.One wonders if that was another distortion produced by the REF?

    It’s absurd to describe counting grant income as a “robust review process”.  It’s an astonishingly crude review process.

    It’s utterly heartless to say “We do not believe this will have a disproportionate impact on our staff”.  The effect on 120 (or whatever the next number is) will be to deprive them of their livelihood and possibly their house.  

    And of course it’s absurd to describe the process as a “consultation”.

    I fear that Trainor and Lechler have shown themselves to be third rate managers in all sorts of ways. Of course this may not be a bad thing for UCL -judging by similar cases in the recent past, we may pick up some of the best people from Kings, who don’t care to work in a place that sends out letters like the one you quote.

     

  • 13 jimjim237 // Jul 11, 2014 at 21:24

    The aim of this post is to widen the scope of the issue you have raised and not to diminish your complaints. 

    I think that it is important to notice that these sort of problems are now endemic in Britain. Since about 1980 most people’s incomes have stagnated and security of employment decreased with only the well off maintaining or in the case of the very well off improving, their position.

    The key words that I think the government is using are deserving and undeserving.

    The undeserving get the bedroom tax, the deserving get government subsidised housing free of a spare room penalty charge through Help to Buy (up to £600,000).

    The undeserving, nurses and midwives, are denied a 1% increase after a multi-year pay freeze. The deserving, NHS senior managers, seem to have had pay rises averaging an annual rate of 8% over the last three years.

    The undeserving, university lecturers, have been offered 1% or so after an extended pay freeze and the deserving, Vice Chancellors get 12%.

    The undeserving can’t afford to buy a house. Many of the deserving are seeing the value of their house increasing at an annual amount higher then their gross salary.

    Then there are the popular, with our various governments, zero hours contracts.

    It goes on and on.

    It seems that according to the government most Britons are undeserving and a few are deserving.

    Productivity continues to rise inexorably but the well off have for 35 years managed to capture essentially all of the gain.

    We seem to be heading for a neo-Dickensian age at quite a decent clip.

    It is similar in the USA.

    The recent book by Piketty discusses the increasing income inequality that many western countries are now experiencing. There is quite an extensive review of it here.

    http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2014/may/08/thomas-piketty-new-gilded-age/

    There is an article about the USA here.

    http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/07/time-bomb-108556.html

    One more.

    http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2014/06/the-pitchforks-are-coming-for-us-plutocrats-108014.html

  • 14 David Colquhoun // Jul 11, 2014 at 21:57

    @jimjim237

    You are, of course, quite right, to point out the hazards of the huge increase in inequality.  The governments policies are iniquitous.  As I type, I’m listening to BBC Newsnight about the appalling policy of requiring a certain income before they can bring a husband or wife to join them.  It’s unbelievably heartless.  Thou shalt not marry a foreigner unless you are rich.

    I’d worry less about vice-chancellors’ pay if they did a bit more to defend universities, rather than eagerly embracing tory policies.  

    Academics, despite the lack of increases, are well paid compared with the large number of people who work hard for pay that is so low that they rely on benefits. That amounts to subsidy of low-pay employers like Amazon and Macdonalds by the UK taxpayer. They get even more subsidy because they are allowed to gey away without paying much tax.

    In the case of Kings, scientists are being fired as a result of bad financial planning. Unless they manage to get another job (not easy at the moment) they aren’t just lost to science.  They may well lose their houses and end up on benefits.  If, as seems likely, their jobs were created in an attempt to boost ratings for the REF, to cast them on the scrap heap as soon as that’s done is utterly heartless.  Perhaps Rick Trainor could support a few of them from his ever-increasing salary. 

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