QM Principal’s Cavalier Remarks on Teaching ‘Risk’ and Research in SBCS

At the request of UCU representatives, Queen Mary’s Principal, Simon Gaskell, visited the School of Biological and Chemical Sciences to hear the deep concerns of staff and students at the ill-thought-out plans to restructure the School.

The meeting was recorded – without those present having been asked, which is typical of the disrespect for staff and students implicit in the restructuring. Nonetheless, since it is now online, everyone can see how managers at QM completely refuse to listen to reason and simply brush off serious concerns about education and research in order to simply railroad through their preferred schemes. Here are a couple of excerpts from Professor Gaskell.

He was asked by one attendee whether he acknowledged that the restructuring proposals put teaching programmes in the School at risk.  Prof Gaskell:

It would be disingenuous of me to suggest that this is a risk-free plan… we will collectively have to work pretty hard to ensure that the educational experience of our students is not damaged. There is a risk to it.

It is good to see management finally admit that their plans are putting education at risk. This has previously been denied, despite UCU’s concern that the plans risk the collapse of undergraduate teaching programmes because 20+ staff could be sacked causing a loss of the broad expertise required to teach undergraduate courses. But how does he propose to deal with it? Those who survive, with even higher workloads to cope with after their colleagues are discarded, must “work pretty hard”. Staff already “work pretty hard”; the average academic working week is in excess of 50 hours, and staff-student ratios in SBCS are extremely high. It will take truly superhuman efforts to mitigate the disastrous impact these plans will have on teaching.

Later, another attendee asks the Principal about research. Staff have tried to explain to managers that any shortcomings in research output relate to an extraordinarily high staff-student ratio (1:23) and a lack of adequate facilities, infrastructure and equipment; yet the proposals will result in, at best, a marginal reduction in the SSR and contain no plans at all to enhance the research infrastructure. How can QM aim for SBCS to be in the top 10% nationally when it lacks a top 10% infrastructure? Prof Gaskell’s reply, based on his own experience at Manchester?

You just pull tricks, basically. My trick at the time was to make friends with an instrument company that made the instruments, and persuade them that if they gave me a few hours of instrument time that would be to their advantage as well… if we don’t have the facilities here, [ask] “who does, and how can you make friends with them?” … If you are interested in capital-intensive areas of research… do what you can on your existing instrumentation and beg, steal or borrow time on other resources.

So there we have it: he admits that the plans put students’ education at risk and thinks the way to improve research outcomes is to sack 20+ staff and get the rest of them to “beg, steal or borrow” resources from elsewhere.

Who could not want to be part of such an inspirational vision?

These “tips”, as he called them, are all the more remarkable because managers believe they will be able to recruit additional “research stars” once they discard the loyal staff who have been burdened with extraordinary teaching loads in recent years, precluding them meeting extremely tough research criteria. Which “research stars” do they think will come to an institution with alleged aspirations to enter the top 10% of UK universities yet where vital equipment must be begged or borrowed from elsewhere? The College’s reputation has already plummeted as scientists learn of its appalling treatment of staff and the Science faculty is already struggling to recruit senior academics. Their plans are so misguided, they don’t even make sense in terms of their own warped logic.

These “tips” are also patronising because they assume that staff aren’t already having to do this sort of thing on a regular basis to make ends meet. Two members of SBCS have actually cobbled together one laboratory using redundant material from an old medical lab. One of them also managed to acquire lab robots for the School by spotting a pharmaceutical company in Oxford which was selling them off; he was able to acquire these financially written-off machines for just 1% of the cost, making savings of £100,000. Ironically this very same individual is now at risk of losing their job because this collegial, “make-do-and-mend” approach naturally reduces the amount of time available to actually conduct research, making it very difficult to meet the absurdly high redundancy criteria – themselves imported from institutions where staff are actually provided with adequate resources.

UCU is profoundly concerned at such a cavalier attitude to education and research. Prof Gaskell and his small coterie of senior managers are obviously committed to a plan that will wreck SBCS as we know it – and they appear impervious to reason. We will need to intensify our resistance to these plans in order to protect our institution, our students, and our academic values.

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