Friday, 9 December 2016

Organising academic work

Recent exchanges about research careers have motivated me to update the blog I rather lightheartedly wrote some time ago about oganizing academic work.

I have long wondered why academic employment should not just obey the same regulations as any other kind of job. There is a downside to this. Academic tenure was designed to prevent authorities from sacking academics for having unpopular opinions. Unpopularity could arise from political issues of course. But other matters are at least as important. Freedom to criticize medical and drug research for example is vital for the safety of patients. But how genuine is job safety for "tenured" academics really these days? I really don't know (never had tenure) but reactions would be interesting.

Be that as it may, if academic departments started to run like commercial companies, you would have a situation where everyone's job depended on the firm getting enough business to pay the wage bill. Lets say it costs £150K per year to employ a lecturer adding together salary NI pension and "overheads". Anyone who has had to cost a research proposal can do this now. If we take students fees to be £9k per year then 20 undergraduates per lecturer is a generous allowance.

But what about research? Lets go back a bit to where it started to be essential for departments to get research money. I dont remember the dates at all well, it was a Thatcher plan. But first there was an attempt to divide universities into "R" and "T" (no prizes). This did not work. The next step depended on the fact that in pre Tatcher days money went to Universities from the government in the form of the "science vote". This money was notionally divided into 3rds: 1/3 for teaching, 1/3 for admin and 1/3 for research. Lecturers notionally spent their time in that way. The government took away the research 1/3rd sometime in the early 1990s (I think) and gave it to the Research Councils. So university departments had to win back 1/3 of their funding by applying for grants. I always thought the idea was the this would de facto create the R and T divide, with some universities cleaning up all the research money and thus having to do a lot less teaching (see my previous blog on this). These would then become the elite that of course the children of the rich would attend. Lecturers would not be dealing with hundreds of pile 'em' high students and would be at cutting edge of disciplines (they thought).

The form taken by the missing 1/3 was in the "overheads" paid on the wages of research assistants. 4-5 years ago these were increased from the 40% of salary costs (i.e. a % of salary) to fixed amounts set by the universities. So today if you are paid £25k or £60k your "overhead" at UCL, Essex or Imperial will be around £75K. It is a horrible thing to say but I have always feared this means that research assistants are basically "overhead fodder". The colleges get the same overheads regardless  of how much they pay you so it is in their interests to replace you with cheaper meat as they get the same money regardless.

Back to oganising research today. My vague notion has been that you need to calculate how much "business" you need to support your staff. This is what happens in many industries. It does mean that when business dries up a redundancy situation arises, as it did a few years ago in the National Centre for Social Research. But my idea was that this would be the same for everyone, with no special protection for certain jobs. The flip side would be that everyone joining a department would have to start developing their own portfolio of 'business'. They would be mentored and supported to do so. This is how the Institute for Fiscal Studies operates.

It is quite sobering to consider that it would take 200 students to support a group of 10 lecturers (this would leave some money to employ an admin expert). But this calculation becomes more important now that we are being told by senior university manager that in fact "research does not pay", apparently even that which pays the full "100% overheads". At least I have been told that.

Problem is, if we are all to be beavering away maximising the student experience of our students (not an unreasonable thing to do), where is new knowledge coming from?

1 comment:

  1. I am more worried about privatising research. It means researchers will be likely to be hired as an analyst/consultant through an agency separately set up by universities. So no more dispute from unions. It will be just lecturers above at universities, doing work by themselves. Academic researchers are never be on secure employment and I am afraid that we are forced to take what are available because it is better to have some money coming in instead of no money at all. Quite many are female with family responsibilities. Science will be half lost without hard working non-tenured researchers.