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No logic in King’s College job cuts

Dorothy Bishop on the senseless purge at the Institute of Psychiatry

Nick Shepherd illustration (3 July 2014)

Source: Nick Shepherd

Redundancy as a response to financial stringency is always painful but it is nothing new in the academic sector. There are, however, some features in King’s College London’s recently announced plans that make them exceptional and raise serious questions about the competence of the university’s managers.

In mid May King’s staff received a document outlining plans to cut 120 academics – 15 per cent of the total – from the university’s schools of medicine and biomedical sciences and the Institute of Psychiatry (“Strike ballot over plans to cut health scholars”, News, 5 June). Not surprisingly, strike action over the proposal (aimed at cutting staff costs by 10 per cent) was backed last week by an overwhelming majority of University and College Union members at the institution.

More surprising has been the strong criticism the plans have elicited from those with experience in academic management at King’s. Senior people usually stick together in such situations, arguing that difficult decisions must be taken when the going gets tough. However, instead, we have King’s professor of psychiatric research Sir Robin Murray complaining in an online petition to King’s principal Sir Rick Trainor of the “incompetent and callous KCL management [that] is now so severely damaging [the Institute of Psychiatry] and its staff”.

For those at the institute, the “restructuring” pain was particularly keenly felt, since a smaller cull in 2010 was followed by promises that it would not happen again.

Another institute luminary, Sir Michael Rutter, co-wrote a letter with Murray to Trainor expressing strong criticism of the redundancy plans.

Yet another knight of the realm, Sir Simon Wessely, head of the institute’s department of psychological medicine, has told me of his concern about the loss of jobs in the institute, which has no spare capacity after the previous round of cuts. Wessely, who has just started a term as president of the Royal College of Psychiatrists, also noted that the weakening of the premier UK institution for academic psychiatry could have negative consequences across the entire nation.

The British Medical Association has also condemned the proposal, not least because the university plans to adopt the highly controversial tactic, previously used by Queen Mary University of London, of identifying “at risk” staff on the basis of metrics such as research income and teaching contact hours. As I pointed out on Twitter, King’s seems to be intent on sacking staff because their research is not expensive enough.

The second odd feature of the purge at King’s is that it is taking place not in a struggling, second-rate organisation, but in an institution that was ranked 38th in the latest Times Higher Education World University Rankings. One challenge noted in the letter to staff was that of “maintaining and improving our position as one of the world’s leading institutions”. The proposed remedy seems bizarre. If you have an international reputation for outstanding research, are you really going to improve it by shedding the very staff who obtained it for you in the first place?

Furthermore, if you cut people out of a network of researchers, you don’t lose only their personal contribution: you also make life difficult for their collaborators and colleagues. Wessely likened the situation to a game of Jenga. This involves players successively removing wooden blocks from a tower until the point inevitably comes when the only ones left are structurally indispensable and the whole edifice comes crashing down.

If you create a culture where staff feel undervalued and threatened, you are also likely to lose not just those who are deemed to be underperforming but also those you want to retain. This happened at the time of the last cull, with high-achieving senior staff moving on and early career researchers taking their fellowships elsewhere.

The third unusual aspect of the King’s case is the presence of students at the forefront of the protests. It’s often said that today’s undergraduates are mere consumers, who care only about the price of beer in the union and the quality of their accommodation. But King’s students are showing their concern for the shabby treatment of academic staff, the lack of consultation and the potential loss of high-calibre teachers and supervisors. Some have complained that King’s appears to be prioritising buildings over people – a charge that appears to have force, despite denials by King’s vice-principal for health, Sir Robert Lechler.

I have a personal interest in these events. I trained at the Institute of Psychiatry in the 1970s, when I felt proud to be associated with such a renowned institution. At that time the buildings were shabby and the facilities limited, but this did not bother me. What mattered was being in a place that was buzzing with exciting ideas. It saddens me to see such a great institution brought to its knees by a management team that seems to treat King’s more like a business than an academic institution, intent on endless expansion whatever the academic cost.

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Readers' comments (20)

  • 'Sir' Rick Trainor should be removed from office. His policies are damaging a world class institution.

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  • There are a number of factual inaccuracies in this article which we’d like to correct. When we announced the restructuring taking place we stated that up to 120 academic jobs may go at King’s as a result of our need to control our costs, increase our income and raise our performance. As a result of a robust and thorough review process which has taken place over the last 6 weeks, we now know that less than half that number of roles remain provisionally at risk across the Schools of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences as well as the Institute of Psychiatry. In the IoP specifically only 13 staff remain provisionally at risk, not 50 as some commentators have claimed. We have not yet completed the formal consultation process, so it is somewhat premature for anyone to be quoting the final numbers concerned.

    It is a matter of regret that some of our own community have chosen to be publicly critical of the current restructuring process before engaging directly with senior management at King’s and without allowing the consultation process to conclude.

    With respect to the metrics selected for the restructure, they do indeed relate to teaching hours and research income but are far more complex and individualised than this suggests. Even once the restructuring is complete, we will have 25% spare capacity in our teaching capability across the three Schools concerned if all those who are scheduled to teach our students do so for an average of one full day a week. 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 disproportionate impact through the changes we have to make, which, whilst regrettable, are essential.

    With respect to the assertion that King’s is placing value on ‘buildings over people’, this is quite simply not the case. 60 roles represents less than 3.2% of our academic workforce at King’s and we are very committed to ensuring that future generations of both students as well as research and other staff have the facilities including the infrastructure befitting a world-class university as we aspire to be. The world today is very different from that in the 1970s and the pressure of global competition for students, staff and funding has never been greater for universities like ours.

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  • Hmm...

    A 'robust and thorough review'.... well, to borrow a phrase, they would say that, wouldn't they?

    As an interested observer of the Russell Group these last two decades, I think I can hazard a guess why people at King's have gone public with their concerns, rather than "engaging directly with senior management" and "allowing the consultation process to conclude". I'd suggest this is likely a result of the view, widespread amongst academics I talk to in UK Universities, that (i) senior managements hardly ever listen; (ii) 'consultations' in the sector are commonly a fig-leaf for 'fait accompli'; and (iii) public shaming is the only thing that Vice Chancellors and senior managers notice.

    Prof David Colquhoun's website at http://www.dcscience.net/ is a rich source of information for anyone wondering why such views have become commonplace.

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  • As part of the student campaign, I find it ... outrageous that we are being accused of inaccuracies and not being supportive of consultation, when KCL decides to update us about redundancies via a comment on an article. This is the very first that I or any other campaigner has heard that there are now 60 members of staff at risk, instead of the larger numbers we have heard from unions and staff. There are no official updates on the website with these new figures, and we have received no emails or information directly. We have been forced to desperately try to make sense of contradictory and piecemeal scraps of information and heard the same lines trotted out again and again in response to our concerns.

    We have made every effort to directly engage senior management but been ignored, patronised or had no real engagement with our concerns. We directly emailed senior management with questions that have gone unanswered, engaged in meetings where our concerns have been brushed off with vague assurances, and had one formal response to our petition which we raised various issues with - we received no response to that. Our petition and our response were sent first to senior management, before making them public - they did not return the courtesy when they accused us of inaccuracies publicly, without contacting us prior.

    If anyone has been sabotaging a meaningful engagement and consultation, it is not the opposition to these redundancies - it is KCL senior management.

    I am glad to hear that the number of positions at risk is lower than the original maximum - I wonder if this may be due to students and staff highlighting how destructive cuts on this scale would be? There was never any sign that senior management had considered the impact themselves, and there *still* is no evidence of any risk assessment.

    The claims that there have been protections been put in place are *still* not backed up with any evidence of plans of this nature.

    The claims that this is essential are *still* not backed up by any transparent evidence of considering all alternatives.

    Unfortunately KCL's comment here follows the same pattern that the rest of their "engagement" has - instead of addressing concerns and inviting a productive and meaningful conversation with staff and students, it simply seeks to discredit us and throw out more statements lacking in evidence.

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  • (The above comment cut a final clarification - I write this as an individual, though one heavily involved in the campaign. If KCL decides to make an official statement, we will happily provide an official response.)

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  • I am surprised to learn that KCL now informs staff of critical information regarding their job safety via the comments section of a news website, rather than conveying this vital info to the people it concerns. Where should we expect our next update? I will wait urgently for your reply below the line at the Mail Online site.

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  • Mr Uppity

    There are a number of weasel-words and euphemisms in the response from KCL management.

    Readers may benefit from the following glossary:

    "Restructuring" = "Destruction"
    "Roles" = "People"
    "Complex and individualised" = "opaque"
    "robust and thorough" = "crude and demeaning"
    "at risk" = "permanently traumatised and betrayed"
    "consultation" = "sham"
    "our need to control our costs" = "our financial mismanagement"
    "3.2%" = a short term financial saving for which it is worth ruining for ever the trust, goodwill and morale of employees and students, the reputation of the University, and with it the ability to attract good researchers and students in future.

    Great job, guys.

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  • Fanis Missirlis

    @MR UPPITY, I am trying to introduce a new word in the English dictionary
    "Restruction", meaning destruction by restructuring

    @Colin Minchin, Rick Trainor should return his renumeration to KCL and Edward Byrne, who will take over as principal and president of King’s in September 2014 should state his position over the controversy.

    http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/news/monash-v-c-to-lead-kings-college-london/2005260.article

    @King's College London
    Who has authorised this text to appear under the College's name (what a stain for its history...)

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  • The document sent to all staff said "Initial modelling indicates that up to 120 academic staff may be dismissed". This document was headed "CONFIDENTIAL – Not for further circulation" but soon appeared in public (see http://www.dcscience.net/?p=6607 ). Some senior academics still don't seem to have understood the blogosphere. It's really rather hard to keep secrets now, and that. on the whole, is very good thing.

    If the new response from Kings is correct, then we can infer that either the initial modelling was disastrously incompetent, or that it pays to make a fuss. The sad fact is that "engaging directly with senior management" usually gets you nowhere. Public shaming seems to work better. This itself suggests to me that some senior managers haven't quite got the hang of how to manage academics. Perhaps they have been on too many leadership courses.

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  • I was pleased to hear in KCL's comment above that the number "at risk" is lower than I stated. Any reduction in the number of redundancies planned at KCL is most welcome. But is it not astonishing that a letter to the Independent last week (http://ind.pn/1qV8ANr), signed by all the heads of department at the Institute of Psychiatry, expressed concern that 50 staff (15% of total) were at risk at that institution? . These are not "some commentators" - they are the people who are responsible for the staff who are concerned, who apparently have not been kept informed of what is happening. We also hear in the comment from Amy Gillespie that the student body, who have been at the forefront of protests (see http://kclhealthsos.wix.com/stopkclredundancies#!student-response/cdi3) have been kept in the dark. My Twitter feed has comments from KCL staff who are relieved that the numbers are lower than previously stated, but dismayed that the first they hear about this is in a comment on a piece in the Times Higher.
    I fear that whatever the final size of the cull, severe damage has already been done - to morale among remaining staff, to relationships between academic staff and administration, to student confidence in the institution, and to KCL's international reputation. That this should have been done with the goal of enhancing the academic prestige of KCL is beyond belief.

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