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.