Imperial measures – but measuring for what?

In which we get a glimpse of the future. And it isn’t very comforting.

Somewhere else in the Blogoverse, I recently wrote that:

“In Universities up and down the UK, University managers are considering the implications of the Government’s funding cuts.”


“…most Universities are planning for significant real-terms cuts in the budget, whatever happens on Thursday.”

As UK readers will know, one part of the picture is clearer today. The vote on University tuition fees – the “Thursday” referred to – has happened, and the Government  prevailed by a small, but clear, majority. The consequence is that Govt direct funding for University teaching is to be slashed by 80%; henceforth, UK students will have to pay most, or even all, of the cost of their tuition.

The axe will fall hardest in the arts, where the Govt is cutting away all tax-derived funding for teaching. But sciences will not be immune, either.

Now, Universities Minister David Willetts (especially) and Business Secretary Vince Cable have been making a lot of noise about how the increase in direct fees (i.e. paid by the students) will make the UK’s Universities  take teaching more seriously, and “improve teaching’s status”.

I have to say that I have yet to meet a single person who actually works in a University who believes this.

And I wouldn’t see research losing its grip on University priorities, and hence on academic career progression, any time soon. Indeed, my prediction is that as the amount of research cash that there is to be given out decreases – another consequence of the cuts – the Universities will be getting more, not less, obsessed with grant-getting.

Which in turn has consequences. One hears a lot of talk in the UK’s research-intensive Universities these days about the need to “disinvest” in “less than excellent research”. Another word one hears a lot is “concentration” – which is a euphemism for what you do by “disinvesting”.

Now, over the 25 years I have worked in UK Universities it has always been true that the individuals most likely to be shed in University voluntary redundancy campaigns – and I’ve lived through at least a half dozen – are academics in the 50+ age range with primarily teaching “portfolios”. These people do not boost the research profile, goes the argument, and you can always get someone cheaper to teach the class – or you can not replace them at all, and simply make everyone who is left take on a bit more teaching.

What is new in the ConDem world is that active, but relatively less profitable, areas of research are set for the same treatment. That is, people with active labs, and probably PhD students, and possibly even grants, are going to be in the cross-hairs too.

The last time this was true was when I first came into academia; the Thatcher years of the 80s, much invoked lately by pundits seeking parallels with the current austerity and funding cuts.

When this kind of thing comes along, the individual character of institutions and their bosses comes to the fore. Some are more aggressive about “getting ahead of the game”, others less. Some simply opt for a voluntary redundancy scheme and hope enough people sign up to cut the wage bill by an acceptable degree. Others, especially now, will see it as a chance for “radical restructuring” – or,  of course, in the new vocabulary, “concentration”.

Among all UK Universities, I would have picked Imperial College London as the one that has historically thought and behaved the most like a business. Early import of management practices borrowed from business, takeovers, attempts at major mergers (like the aborted one with UCL a few years ago) etc etc.. You can also see it, I think, in their choice of VCs/Principals and where they come from – ex-business honchos (like Richard Sykes, ex Glaxo) rather than ex-academics.

Of course, Imperial is one of the UK’s research powerhouses. It employs many excellent scientists – dare we mention our own Stephen Curry – who do first-rate research. I also imagine it provides its students with an excellent education. When we were discussing Imperial on a medical blog recently, one blogger whose kids had attended the college also stressed Imperial’s commitment to “enterprise and entrpreneurialism”. That rings true for me, and in some ways Imperial is more like a US University than any other UK institution. However, Imperial also has a reputation among UK academics for being a pretty hard-nosed employer, and generally seen as fonder than most UK Universities of restructurings and redundancies.

And now today I understand that a whole subsection of plant scientists are Imperial are set for the chop. There is an article about this from the Imperial College students’ paper here, and a letter from an Emeritus Professor – I’m guessing the former head of the threatened grouping – can be found here.

You will perhaps note with interest what he says about teaching, and things other than research in general.

I wonder if Messrs Willetts and Cable are following?

And finally, I am feeling a bit like Cassandra. In one of my comments to the parent-of-Imperial-students I wrote that:

“The answer may well be that Imperial is a very good place to be a high-flying academic, but not a very good one to be an average academic. But all Universities actually need (perhaps slightly better than) average academics too.”

And I also said something else:

“Of course, I suspect the UK Government would likely regard [Imperial] as a model”

So perhaps David and Vince will be paying attention after all.

For, judging by what I am hearing from my friends in the other UK Research-intensive Universities, I fear that what is happening at Imperial is very much the shape of things to come elsewhere.


I will update this blog as more information about what is happening at Imperial becomes available. It is notable that the articles I have seen so far contain no official statement from the college, though I understand they were asked for one. There has also been an open meeting for students and staff a couple of days ago to air their views about the impending “rationalisation”, though as yet I have seen no report of what the Imperial management said there.

About Austin

Middle-aged grouchy white male. Hair greying but hasn't all fallen out yet. Spreading waistline ill-concealed by baggy jumper.Semi-extinguished physiology researcher turned teacher. Known for never shutting up. Father of two children (aged 6 and 2) who try to out-talk him. Some would call that Karmic Revenge.
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15 Responses to Imperial measures – but measuring for what?

  1. cromercrox says:

    But Austin, there isn’t any money. None. Labour spent it all, by their own admission, and when they did that, they borrowed more. A good friend of mine in investment banking told me some time ago that the country is broke. We can’t afford the war in Afghanistan, he said, adding that we can’t afford membership of the European Union, and, in fact, ‘we can’t afford anything’. People I know in the public sector are being made redundant. Mrs Crox, who works in the private sector but largely funded from public sector grants, is being made redundant. The blame for this must be laid squarely with the mismanagement of the previous Labour government. As Vince Cable said himself, he’d love to be Father Christmas and spread money around – who wouldn’t want to have that luxury? – but he can’t, because we live in the real world.

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  3. Austin says:

    I don’t think that washes, Henry. First off, we can’t simply grant the government a flat pass every time they chant “there is no money”. They choose what they are going to spend the money they have on. They also choose whether to use taxes to raise more. For instance, If we can’t afford the war in Afghanistan, let’s get out of it. And another thing – the cuts in other areas vary, but a cut of 80% in University funding for teaching? None of the other cuts are on anything like that scale, percentage-wise.

    Second, what stands out here is that there seems to have been very little discussion – the academics were basically just told “we’ve decided you are no longer required”. The ex-Prof’s letter implies the section in question was not losing money – it just wasn’t making as much, specifically in terms of research grants, as the Imperial management would have liked. It may mimic the private sector, but that is not what Universities have historically been about. Many of the people that work in Universities work there precisely because Universities don’t behave like businesses.

    Third, there is the kind of argument that Greg Petsko makes. Is one of the UK’s “Big Six” research Universities really saying it has no place for plant science? That is bizarre. How important is plant science in the current world? And Imperial has decided to ditch it?

    Fourthly, and my main point, is that what Imperial is doing exemplifies what the actual effects of the “fees shake-out” of UK Universities will be. Quite contrary to the status of teaching being “enhanced”, what everyone in the Univs expects will happen is that the people who do the bulk of the teaching will get laid off. That will mean people who don’t want to teach doing more teaching, or cheaper and less experienced people being hired to do it. Will that improve teaching, as Cable and Willetts keep telling us? You be the judge.

  4. rpg says:

    For instance, If we can’t afford the war in Afghanistan, let’s get out of it

    WOAH. I might be too ill-informed/drunk to comment on anything else, but that’s… crazy talk. I oppose the various wars the Labour government got us into as much as anyone, but once you make a commitment like that you can’t just up and leave because it’s too expensive. You just can’t.

  5. Austin says:

    OK, Richard, but then are we committed to maintain the same “force level” as the last Govt committed to if we no longer wish to? What if we want out before the US is ready? Are we obliged to maintain a much greater force commitment than other non-US allies there simply because that was what we went in with? Or because the US say “well, we want you guys to stay?”

  6. rpg says:

    No, of course not. But you can’t just STOP. These things take time.

  7. Austin says:

    Some people who think we don’t need scientists think we don’t need the armed forces either!

    Me, I’m for disbanding the Met Police riot squad.

  8. nico says:

    Henry, sorry to hear about Mrs Crox’s situation, but I have to disagree here. £100bn were found back in early 2010 to add to the already huge amount used to prop up banks, and the Bank of England was recently talking of releasing another £100bn of quantitative easing. That the problem was partly caused by Labour’s mismanagement doesn’t wash. There seems to be no money for HE, education, enforcing tax evasion laws or benefits, but there is always some for wars, Trident (that I consider as no more than a cache-sexe as we say back home), the debacle that is the Type 45 ship. The NHS escaped because it has become (rightly or wrongly) a sacred cow, even though it is responsible for one of the most ridiculously overpriced IT failures in the history of state procurement that has wasted nearly £13bn. Only positive so far is the scrapping of the ID card.

    Yet there are no suggestions that the rates of taxes should go up, because no politician in the UK is brave enough to admit that actually this is a low-tax society that has lived for too long above its means (that you can lay at the doors of Labour). In fact I fully expect inheritance tax breaks that benefit only rich people, lowered corporate tax, no increased taxes on second homes, and so on. I am not hopeful.

  9. nico says:

    The Independent comes to my rescue regarding figures: apparently more than £700bn have been ploughed back in the banks. I note how the article reports that not only the banking lobby, but UK officials, lobbied against tightened pay rules for bankers. So we know who’s side they’re on (not that New Labour would have been much better on that topic, I’m afraid).

  10. Well, I’m with you, Nico – re banking vs HE, see the second link in a comment I just posted over on the thread following Henry’s post on fees (actually, I’ll repeat the link for ease – it is here.)

    As a general comment, might be worth keeping discussion of “Are the fees rises fair and/or reasonable?” over there, and keeping this thread to the effects of the fees rises on Universities and their staff – some discussion of which can also be found here.

  11. nico says:

    Hi Austin,

    I got a bit side-tracked there, sorry about that. It’s just that I see it as a whole, and it is difficult to hear on one hand that there is no money for education, but plenty for weapons, sometimes used to bomb my relatives, or failed bankers, who will repossess my home in an instant shall I fall on hard times.
    Will try and keep it together.

  12. Wasn’t a criticism, Nico, I see it the same way as you, near enough. It was more to try and keep the threads/discussions organised. Though I dare say I need the traffic more than the Crox-meister does.

    Stephen (Curry) just pointed me to this fairly depressing Times Higher article, in which Wellcome Trust director Mark Walport seems to be pretty much accepting, or even endorsing, the Govt’s “impact” agenda.


  13. rpg says:

    I can understand the Trust’s position (having recently done A LOT of reading about it). They’re trying to make people healthier, essentially, so of course they want funds directed towards stuff that’s going to make a difference, and sooner rather than later. The Trust also wants the government to continue funding the full economic cost of research, so that its own money goes further…

    Of course, the real argument is that you can never tell what’s going to make a difference, so measuring ‘impact’ is always going to be fraught.

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