Save SBCS!

The School of Biological and Chemical Sciences (SBCS) at Queen Mary, University of London is under grave threat from a massive and poorly-thought-out management restructuring. The proposals risk sacking nearly a third of the School’s academic staff, destroying the ethos of the School, collapsing the teaching programme, and undermining research. (This entry gives a brief overview of our concerns; for further information click here to see all posts relating to SBCS.)

Management proposals are solely designed to catapult SBCS from 35th in the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise into the top quintile. SBCS is in financial surplus and cross-subsidises other science departments. Its low 2008 RAE rank reflects previous management strategy to massively expand student numbers. This pushed the staff-student-ratio (SSR) to 1:23, creating huge teaching loads for many staff, leaving them with little time for research. Research time and resources were also funnelled to a narrow group of staff, with very little support offered to early-career researchers.

Now, those staff who picked up the teaching load face the sack with management proposing 20+ redundancies. All staff will be retrospectively evaluated not against the targets they were set at the time—to teach students and do research– but on new research targets based on the performance of the top 20% of researchers nationally.[1] Staff will therefore be judged using criteria imported from institutions with SSRs closer to 1:13, with vastly greater research resources, and much better management systems.

Whoever is left will supposedly get more time to research, but management have proposed no improvements in resources or infrastructure that would actually improve research outputs. Staff simply face an aggressive, rolling performance management system based on discredited metrics imported from the Excellence in Research for Australia scheme—which has been abandoned as inappropriate by the Australian government![2] Management hope to import research ‘stars’ from elsewhere to replace the long-serving staff being brutally discarded. Everyone will be forced into new research areas dictated by the School, in an effort to align research with unspecified ‘future funding streams’. This will destroy the School’s ethos and collegiality, violate academic freedom, undermine good science, and create enormous risk for the School when funding priorities change.

The impact on teaching will be similarly disastrous. The 11-page restructuring proposal document contains just one paragraph on teaching, reflecting a total disregard for students. Sacking 20+ staff is likely to cause SBCS’s teaching programme to collapse. Concentrating research as proposed will destroy the broad expertise needed to offer proper undergraduate programmes. 14 of the new research ‘stars’ are to be in Bioinformatics, for which there is little student demand. The SSR is actually set to rise because the proposals also involve a large rise in Masters students. (This alone makes it unlikely that staff will have more time to research.) Management propose to hire 8 teaching-only staff to cover more of the teaching of research-active staff. Not only is this totally insufficient, undergraduates paying £9,000-a-year fees now face being taught by staff who do not research in the areas they teach–a key feature distinguishing Universities from polytechnics and FE colleges. These will also be low-paid, high-stress jobs. Student satisfaction will plummet. Reflected in NSS scores, this will deter the best students from applying to Queen Mary. PhD students risk losing their supervisors and face being forced to change their topic or leave the College. All this is totally unacceptable for our students. And, since SBCS relies on student fees for 70% of its income, it risks financial ruin.

We are particularly worried about the impact these developments would have on the widening participation agenda. SBCS is the highest-performing department at Queen Mary in this respect. In 2008/9, the most recent year for which data is available, it was the leading school in the College in terms of proportion of young students coming from state schools (87%), lower socio-economic classes (31.5%), and neighbourhoods with low traditional participation in higher education (5.3%). These rates compare very well to the national averages (85.5%, 32.3% and 3.7% respectively). SBCS was also the leading department at Queen Mary for these measures for the period 2004/5 to 2008/9.[3] At a moment when the Office of Fair Access is being strengthened to ensure that universities charging top fees enhance access to poorer students, it seems perverse that Queen Mary managers are imperilling education precisely in the School that takes on more students from disadvantaged backgrounds than any other.

It also seems to us a betrayal of Queen Mary’s own heritage and values. Queen Mary College began life as the People’s Palace, a philanthropic institution devoted to provide poor East Londoners with educational, cultural and social opportunities. We have a proud tradition of serving our local community and students from other disadvantaged areas, which we do not want to see wrecked by thoughtless restructurings.

Management plans are ill-considered, treat staff and students with contempt, and will probably not even achieve their stated goals. In a poll of staff who are UCU members, 39 out of 40 declared they had no confidence in the plans. UCU and SBCS staff are drafting alternative proposals that will boost research output, safeguard teaching, and preserve jobs. But this is just the latest restructuring at Queen Mary; others have been rammed through without listening to staff or student concerns. We need YOUR help to make management listen!

What YOU can do to help

Sign our petition to declare your solidarity with SBCS staff and students, and urge management to respond positively to our counter-proposals.

Contact management to express your alarm at the damage their proposals will do to the disciplines of Biology, Chemistry and Psychology, to good science and academic freedom, and to our teaching programmes. For a model email click here.

Download a flyer version of this information here and pass it onto colleagues.

_______________________

[1] The proposed redundancy criteria relate to the period Jan 2008 to Dec 2011, during which many staff were told to concentrate on teaching. These criteria are based on the median achieved by the top 20% of UK researchers; that is, half of the researchers in the top fifth of the country failed to achieve these targets.

Category of staff No. of  Papers No. of  high quality papers [2]
Income (£) PhD studentships
Biology and Chemistry Professor 13 3 500000 at least 200000 as PI 2
Reader 10 2 375000 at least 150000 as PI 2
Senior Lecturer 8 2 300000 at least 120000 as PI 1
Lecturer 5 1 200000 at least 10000 as PI 1
PsychologyProfessor 13 3 140000 at least 70000 as PI 2
Reader 10 2 105000 at least 50000 as PI 2
Senior Lecturer 8 2 84000 at least 40000 as PI 1
Lecturer 5 1 56000 at least 35000 as PI 1

[2] The proposed ‘new academic roles’ are quite similar to the redundancy criteria. “High quality” papers are defined as those ranked “A*” in the 2010 Australian ERA. The Australian Research Council (ARC) says these rankings are outdated and should no longer be used. The ERA’s practice of ranking journals was extremely controversial from the start, not least because the process by which journals were ranked was, in practice, highly politicised. In 2011, 7,000 complaints were filed against the use of the rankings. Multiple problems were raised, none of which are registered in the SBCS proposals. These included massive variance in the proportion of disciplinary journals ranked A*, from 0% to 33%. The use of the rankings was consequently abandoned by the Australians ahead of the 2012 ERA.

[3] Calculated from Higher Education Statistics Agency data (source), and QMUL Planning Unit calculations from HESA data (source – QM intranet only).

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