Blogs > Cliopatria > The terrible situation of King's College London

Feb 12, 2010 11:44 am

The terrible situation of King's College London

Several people have asked me to write something about the situation at King's College London. And indeed, it may seem strange that I haven't so far joined in what has become one of the most widespread campaigns I have seen in my short span as a medievalist blogger. The cause of this alarm and outrage is that KCL is proposing to axe, among other staff to whom we'll come in a moment, the English-speaking world's only Chair of Palæography, that is, the study of ancient writing, the discipline which underlies any work done with manuscripts from a time before typescript (and after, where Gothic Black Letter is concerned, I might add). It is pretty important. Without training in palæography the original sources of this period basically become inaccessible, and work on OCR of such textsand so on has only increased this importance in recent years. And the incumbent Professor, David Ganz, has been a stalwart in the rôle as it was envisioned, giving advice to all and sundry (including me), whether they were at KCL or not, involving himself in new media projects and digital technology and also, publishing like a mad thing. By any normal UK academic assessment, based on research output and even this new and nebulous quality 'impact', David should be a shoo-in. But KCL are not assessing on this basis: they are severely short of income, and are assessing on the basis of the revenue the post brings in, in terms of research students, grants and class sizes. And in those terms, David's post is one of many under serious threat.

King's College London from within

The first thing that has spelled me from writing, apart from incredible busyness, is that I didn't think I had anything to add to the immense coverage already out there. (I've tried to collect this at the end: so far I know of seventeen posts but I expect there are more.) There is a Facebook group; there is an online petition. Many letters have been written (and I made sure mine was in the post before publishing this). What am I going to add to all that? Secondly, it's a bit awkward, because not only is David a friend and confidant (to whom indeed I currently owe a pint), there are other people I know well under threat in this situation, and it may be that not all of them can be saved. It's also awkward because I used to work, briefly, at KCL's Department of History, who were really nice to me, and so if I critique their decisions I am turning ungratefully on a former employer. (In what follows I am clinging to the idea that though the Department of History hired me, the decisions at issue here have all been taken at a much higher level. I hope History Department members and indeed future employers will bear that in mind if they read this.)

But the situation is very bad, and I can maybe reach places that don't usually hear about such things, at least, such things in the medieval sphere: in other areas alas, matters like this are sadly familiar here. I'm not going to try and explain how important palæography is: others have done that already and better than I will, not least Mary Beard who commands a far wider audience. The subject is, after all, important enough that it is taught in many other places and although I respect his work immensely and have been keen to enlist his help when I have needed it, I was never a student of Professor Ganz's. This is, in part, the problem he faces: the way he has filled this post very much fits the original vision in which it was created, as a help to the classicists, medievalists and even early modernists worldwide. His own students are a tiny fraction of his impact, but they are the only fraction that KCL now wishes to measure. It's only KCL's changing the rules like this that could ever have led to the suggestion that his post is of marginal importance. So, what's behind the KCL rule change is what I'm talking about here.

A C7th list of rents from St Martin de Tours, Schoyen Collection, MS 570

(Here, by way of illustration, is a manuscript that you probably can't read without help...)

The huge effort on the Internet is already reaching the stage of self-congratulation, which is dangerous: we haven't achieved anything yet. More cynical voices are arguing that Facebook is all very well, and as David himself has observed it would be rather nice if the newest technology of communication came to the rescue of one of the oldest, but really what the people in charge will be watching is old-fashioned letters. One of the first things I wanted to find out, indeed, was who the people in charge were, to ask how come palæography had been selected first, what the timetable was for the other posts under threat and who'd decided who went first, who chooses who stays and whether (call me a cynic) there are any administrative job cuts planned. I rang the Head of Division in KCL Human Resources who deals with Humanities repeatedly over three working days, but never got through to more than her answering machine. However, the pressure of questions that I assume KCL have also been receiving from others has paid off in some way, because they have put the original internal document about the process online, and in order to make sure it stays that way I have grabbed a copy and it is up here. And from this we get some of the answers and realise that, oh lor', it's far worse than we thought.

KCL's School of Arts and Humanities is forecasting a loss this year of 2·9 million pounds sterling. In part this has arisen because of government cuts of funding, and this is the main target of blame, although the UK government insists that it is only cutting five per cent of funds and that this is a saving any institution ought to be able to make. (Lord Mandelson's five per cent figure is easily disproved, however: firstly, HEFCE's own sums make it over six,** and secondly cuts had already been announced in November that amounted to a 4-5% cut by 2012, to which this is additional.)

Rumours and hearsay from elsewhere however suggest that this is only part of the problem: KCL's School of Arts and Humanities was already shorter of money than it had been expecting, because it did less well than in previous years in the government's Research Assessment Exercise and the National Student Satisfaction survey but had apparently budgeted on the assumption that it would do as well. To add to this, of course, the global financial situation is pretty bad, and I guess KCL's endowment has been hit. Because it's not just Arts and Humanities: KCL as a whole is looking to shed a full ten per cent of staff in ALL areas, admin. included. The rôle of the government in this is of course awful: one might expect a government of a country in economic trouble and with horribly rising unemployment to invest in education and talent creation, especially a government which is still somehow holding onto a pledge to send half the population to university, but instead it is cutting so much money that 300,000 university applicants this year are likely to be denied a place. But the government cuts are only part of a larger story: KCL seems to have budgeted and invested poorly and is now reaping the harvest in an act of incredible self-harm that must cripple their ability to attract students, administrators or faculty (though in the middle of this, while not even knowing who remains on staff to work with incomers, they are still hiring...)

In this kind of scenario what's being handed down to Arts and Humanities is only part of a more general Terror, but it is a worse part of it. They are aiming overall to lose 22 posts, which is a lot more than ten per cent. This is after cutting costs by £550,000 in the Centre for Computing in the Humanities, one of KCL's most forward-looking sections. They also anticipate saving a similar amount by not replacing retiring staff or replacing them at junior level. But that leaves a million to find. And so out come the knives. I quote, to avoid imposing my own priorities:

The following activities would be restructured, with 11 fte academic staff at risk:
1. The Department of American Studies would close. One member of staff has successfully applied to the VLS, three further posts will become at risk of redundancy upon the termination of the BA degree in 2012. It may be possible for two members of staff to be relocated to the Department of English to offer courses in American and Comparative Literature, in particular on transnational literatures and cultural exchange, and on visual culture and modern cultural studies. Of these two, one post is essential to the process of restructuring and will be saved. The other post would be deployed in the English department, to respond to a need for teaching and research in visual culture and modern cultural studies. At risk: 3 posts.
2. Linguistics would cease as a distinct activity at the School, although the MLC will continue to offer courses to the MA in Language and Cultural Diversity, which it organizes at an administrative level for the Centre for Language, Discourse and Communication. Beyond this Linguistics would cease as a distinct activity in the School of Arts and Humanities. Four posts in German, Spanish, and BMGS [Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies--ed.] would be at risk of redundancy. Three members of staff would be made redundant by 31 August 2010 if no suitable alternative employment could be found and one member of staff, assessed on the need for continuing PhD supervision, would be made redundant on 31 August 2011 if there was no suitable alternative. At risk: 4 posts.
3. Paleography would cease as a distinct activity. At risk: 1 post by 31 August 2010.
4. Computational Linguistics would cease as an activity in the School. At risk: 2 posts in the Department of Philosophy by 31 August 2010.
5. Within the Department of Classics, there is excess capacity in Classical Archaeology and Art. It is proposed that this group of staff is reduced from currently four academics to three. At risk: 1 post by 31 August 2010, chosen on the basis of performance.

Beyond the restructuring identified above, 11fte academic positions will no longer be viable if the desired target savings as part of the restructuring programme of £1.52m are to be achieved. The need to reach this financial goal means that there will be a diminishment of need in the overall numbers of academic staff required within the School as a whole.

That last bit is the most ominous of all, to me, but I'm sure you found your own horrors in there. And how is all this going to be achieved?

It is proposed that all academic roles within the School of Arts & Humanities (but excluding the MLC and CCH) will be declared at risk of redundancy. Selection of those roles which will be redundant will be done through an assessment based on the performance of each role holder. Each member of staff at risk would be required to submit a summary of their performance using a standard format. The areas which would be assessed are:
• Research excellence and fit including:
• Contribution to the research output of the department and School;
• Publication record
• Confirmed future outputs leading to the REF;
• Research Income;
• Esteem indicators;
• Research"fit";
• 500 word research statement.
• Teaching contribution and fit and a demonstration of excellence in student recruitment that is significantly above national average. For all students, teaching need will be assessed through:
• Number of contact hours taught, with contact hours defined as total number of hours per year of BA and MA classroom teaching in 2008-9 and 2009-10. This will also be taken as evidence of 'teaching fit' in the department and in the School.
• Number of BA/MA/PhD students taught
• Evidence of Student Satisfaction (including PhD completion rates)
• Administrative Leadership. Staff will be evaluated less on ‘standard’ departmental administrative duties, which are expected to be undertaken by every member of staff on an equitable basis, but more on strategic initiative and drive, notably the setting up of new courses, collaborative alliances, international links, etc.

So that's the new régime. Publish or perish? No: earn or die. And they have 'fit', twice, to allow them to make subjective decisions about the direction of KCL's future arts and humanities impact. How would you like this to be the way your institution was thinking, and are you sure they're not? It's not beyond hope, at least:

These projections are proposals and therefore subject to consultation through the formal process.

That process, the document makes clear, ends on 27th April, although by then those 'at risk' will already have had their appeal hearings so I don't know what effect the powers that be envisage the consultation having: none, it would seem. But at least there there is room for a voice. And whether you hope that a picture is as good as a thousand words to save Palæography, or whether you might be be more inclined to shout for American Studies or the philosophers who are protesting their dismissal, I urge you to get in there and make that voice heard. I myself have written for David, as I say, but not without misgivings, because I'm conscious of two contemporaries of mine recently hired in this School who may be subject to LIFO decisions because of not yet having had time to gather research students or publish shelves of research, and as another colleague said to me,"if we save David, who are we kicking out of a job?" This is just horrible, there's nothing good about any of it and there are far too many people involved whom one might have hoped would use their positions of power better in the interest of knowledge and learning than what we're seeing.

(Cross-posted at A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe.)

Coverage, alphabetically by website or blog:

* I should say that when I taught there, a department of some forty academics and gods know how many students—their website is unforthcoming on this front—was being administrated by a full two people, although audio-visual stuff was done centrally and the academic staff took a far larger chunk of admin. than some do elsewhere. It helped that the staff were brilliant, but the place I currently teach does the same job, in a slightly smaller department, with six people and still struggles. There was no more fat to trim here, at least.

** The actual figures are rather difficult to calculate, and the individual institutional grants being handed out are not yet public. Also, 2010-2011 was always going to be bad anyway because £250m of its budget was brought forward to spend in 2008-09 and 2009-10, but: in terms of raw outgoings year by year it is down to £7,291m from £7,809m, which I reckon as a reduction of 6·64% not taking inflation or deflation into account. Most of this is coming out of capital funds; research is actually up, HEFCE claim, in real terms, though teaching is very slightly down despite more actual cash allocated.

It's only fair to admit that these posts were all put up by the same person and replicate each other.

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