Kafkarna continues: REF gloves off at Lancaster University

I thought I would reblog this. Partly because I haven’t had a chance to write much recently and it gives me an opportunity to keep things ticking over, partly because it seems like something worth highlighting (although given my readership, this may not help much), and partly because I’ve written about the REF (and been quite critical) and this type of activity is one of the things that I expected to happen and illustrates the issues – in my opinion – with this type of assessment process. I particularly like, and agree with, this comment in the post Whatever this charade is, it is not a framework for research excellence and so I recommend giving this a good read.

coasts of bohemia

Two days ago an open letter from Professor Paolo Palladino, former Head of the History Department at Lancaster University, appeared on the university’s internal History Staff list serve, with copies sent to senior administrators in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences (FASS) and Central Administration.  I responded the next day with a post supporting Professor Palladino’s position, sent to the same recipients. With Paolo’s permission, I am reproducing both of our letters here.  We both believe that the issues raised by Lancaster’s selective culling of research-active staff from submission in the 2014 REF–a practice in which it is not alone among British universities–deserve the widest possible public debate.  We would therefore urge anyone who shares our concerns to share this post through social media.

Professor Palladino’s letter:
Dear all,
Over the next few days, a number of colleagues across the university are to be informed that they will not…

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The integrity of universities

There’s a very interesting (in my opinion) article by George Monbiot in the Guardian today. The article is called Oxford University won’t take funding from tobacco companies, but Shell’s OK. The basic premise is that universities should be acting for the common good, or as George Monbiot puts it

the need for a disinterested class of intellectuals which acts as a counterweight to prevailing mores.

I have to say that I agree completely with this. It has always surprised me how disinterested UK academics can be. I had always assumed that university academics had a role to play in defining what is acceptable in our societies. They are meant to be the intellectual members of our society; the people who think. If academics are reluctant to be involved in this, then who else is going to do it? This isn’t to say that everyone should bow to the views of academics, simply that academics should feel free to question what is accepted in our societies.

There are probably many reasons why UK academics are reluctant to engage in discussions about our society. One may simply be that academics have become very focused. They see themselves as experts in quite specific areas and so don’t see it as appropriate to engage in areas outside their expertise. There is some merit to this, but it is a bit disappointing – in my opinion. Another may be that there is now quite a lot of pressure on academics. Universities have become very bureaucratic and there is quite a strong publish-or-perish attitude. Academics don’t have much spare time to contemplate the merits – or lack thereof – of our societal mores. Universities have also become much more like businesses. The goal is to maximise teaching and research income and, hence, academics are discouraged from doing anything that doesn’t enhance a university’s ability to generate income.

Personally, I think the latter is the main reason why universities (in the UK) are no longer hotbeds of dissent. We are publicly funded and hence need to do what is expected of us. I’m often very critical, for example, of the Research Excellence Framework (REF2014) and even though most seem to agree, the typical response is “we just have to do this”. Well, yes, but do we have to do it happily. If we think it is damaging what we regard as strengths of the UK Higher Education system, shouldn’t we be making it clear that we’re doing it under duress. There’s also this view that we have to do what is best for UK PLC (i.e., what will best help economic growth in the UK). In a sense, I agree with this. What I disagree with is how we’re influenced to do this. University research has, for many decades, had a very positive impact on economic growth. However, this didn’t happen because politicians told universities to do this. It’s because people recognised the significance of some piece of research and used it to develop something that had economic value. It’s also largely unpredictable. It’s certainly my view that telling us to start predicting the economic benefit of our research will do more harm than good.

The final thing I was going to say regards the main thrust of George Monbiot’s article. If there is increasing evidence that global warming is happening (as there is) and if there is evidence that such warming could lead to life-threatening climate change, shouldn’t the universities where this research is taking place act as though it’s important. Maybe universities shouldn’t be accepting funding from oil companies, if their own research indicates that we should significantly reduce our use of fossil fuels. I have heard some argue that we shouldn’t worry about the provenance of our funding as we’ll typically do good things with whatever money we can get. I think this is naive. The idea that one can take funding from oil companies without being influenced by the source of this funding seems highly unlikely.


I’ve been working on a new research topic for a few months now. It’s not something that I’m particularly familiar with and I’ve quite enjoyed learning something new. What I’ve found interesting is – in a sense – how much I’ve learned and how much I’ve relied on things that I thought I’d forgotten. When I first started working on this problem, I stared at a set of equations without any real sense of how I would work through to get to the point where I could use them to solve the problem I was trying to solve. I then recognised something and saw how to get started. I didn’t get it right first time, but this small spark of recognition is what got me going. What stuck me was that something that I learned a long time ago and had largely forgotten, came back to me very quickly and now I feel completely comfortable using it.

It’s now been quite a few months that I’ve been working on this problem, and I haven’t quite finished but I’ve really enjoyed persevering through it. Even if it doesn’t lead to any publications, that’s fine. I now understand something about this research area that I didn’t really understand before. It’s also been nice, in a sense, going back to basics. My office is now littered with bits of paper with algebraic calculations on them. It’s not something that I’ve done for quite some time.

So why am I writing this? Well, partly to simply write something a little more positive than is the norm for me. There were two thoughts I had when working on this problem. One was that as someone who teaches, it is really good to work on something basic and fundamental and to use some of the tools I learned as a student. In a sense this is why I think it is good for active researchers to teach at this level. We use the tools we’re teaching to solve real problems and hence understand their significance. The other thing I realised was just how quickly you remember how to use the mathematical/scientific tools that you learn as a student. Students often think they learn things that they’ll never use, but you never know what tools you may need in the future and it seems remarkable how quickly you become familiar, again, with what you learned many years before. Anyway, its been fun and enjoyable working through something both basic and complex at the same time. I hope I can use what I’ve learned to do some interesting research but even if nothing comes of it, it’s still been a very interesting and useful experience.

This is a little like a double reblog. This post links to another that argues that brilliants students should seriously consider not doing a PhD. Personally, my experiences are not as extreme as illustrated in this post, but I think there is quite a lot of merit in what this post is saying. It does seem that we do need to think long and hard about our PhD programmes and how we treat PhD students. I would go further and suggest that we need to consider the full academic career structure. It seems, to me at least, that the pressure at all stages is increasing and that the aspects of an academic career that made it attractive are being eroded to the point where I’m not sure that I would recommend an academic careers to others.

Disturbing the Universe

Excellent post by a friend on why not to do a PhD:

Dear Brilliant Students: Please Consider not Doing a PhD

Liv says a lot of good things here so that even if you do still want to do a PhD after reading this, you will be going into the process with eyes more open than I did.

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Academic promotions (or not)

I don’t normally write much about things that are personal, but I thought I might pen some thoughts about my recent (unsuccessful) promotion attempt. Hierarchies in academic departments (or at least those that I am aware of) can be quite different to what one might encounter in other industries. The normal academic job titles are Lecturer, Senior Lecturer, Reader and Professor and one might expect one’s position to be determined by the job one is required to do, but that isn’t normally the case. It’s quite common for people in more junior positions to have the same kind of role in a department as those who are more senior (in fact, it’s not uncommon for more junior people to have more prominent roles than those who are more senior). To get promoted requires that you build up some kind of portfolio and have some kind of status that satisfies the requirements of each position. By and large, I’m reasonably comfortable with this as people’s roles in a department can change quite a lot over a career and so basing it on what your current role is would be unmanageable.

So, I’ve held a management post in our department for a number of years, have a reasonably heavy teaching load, hold research grants, manage students and postdocs, publish regularly, and am quite well cited. To be fair, nothing particularly spectacular but I do have a good number of highly cited papers and I am first or second author on a majority of my papers. I decided (and was encouraged) to apply for promotion. I wrote all my promotion documents (which I do find a little odd) got some comments from our head of group and sent them off. I was then told that my department was not going to support my application. I was disappointed (as one might imagine) but also a little surprised. I hadn’t expected the department to do this. I knew that the head would have to write some kind of support letter, but I assumed that it would go to whatever central committee decides these things and that the department could indicate the strength of its support in the accompanying letter. To be fair, I knew I was probably marginal and I wasn’t necessarily expecting to be successful, but I expected the decision to come from some nameless university committee, rather than from a group of people who I actually know quite well.

On the other hand, I can completely understand that it doesn’t make sense for the department to submit applications that they’re not really supporting. If the decision was based on some objective, unbiased analysis of my case then, although disappointing, I would be comfortable with this. Honesty being the best policy. The feedback I got, however, suggests that the process can be somewhat tribal. There are a limited number of cases that the department can realistically support. There are a number of groups within the department and so you probably need to be the strongest applicant in your group. Even this may not be strictly true as there is a sense that there is an order (i.e., who gets to go first). It seems as though someone who’s applied before will get supported ahead of someone who is applying for the first time. To be fair, I don’t really know how it works and, given that I felt myself that my case was possibly marginal, I can’t really be too dissatisfied about not being supported this time. I also have a good job at a good university that pays me a decent salary to do something I enjoy, so can’t really complain too much.

What’s probably most disappointing though is that even though I’ve had a reasonably substantial management role in the department and had one of the higher teaching loads, I’ve maintained a healthy research programme. I think that I had hoped that anyone looking at my overall performance would be supportive. The main criticisms, however, seemed to be that I didn’t have any real indications of leadership outside my university. Part of this is just how I do research. I don’t really belong to any major collaborations so can’t be leader of some part of a major research project. What they were looking for was, supposedly, something like me being on some national committee that was deciding some kind of policy. I haven’t really done much of this, partly because it’s not clear how doing these things would make me a better teacher and researcher and partly because I’ve never been asked. Not being asked may well indicate how I’m thought of in the community, but it does seem that it’s quite common to put yourself forward for these type of things and I’m not that comfortable doing that. If it’s thought that I could contribute to something and if I thought it worth doing, I would be happy to be involved. What I don’t want to do is push to be on various high profile committees just to tick some box on a future promotion application. This is probably my main issue with the process: the sense that you need to do some things that may not benefit your research or teaching, but make people – who don’t know or understand your research well – think that you have some kind of leadership role in your scientific community. I’m not suggesting that it’s terrible to do these kinds of things, just not clear why they are seen as so important (especially if it can be a little self-selecting and if noone actually checks whether you’re any good at these things).

Anyway, that’s all I was going to write. If anyone does reads this, I hope it doesn’t come across as whiny. Writing this has felt a little cathartic, so maybe it has helped. I do worry sometimes that someone involved will read a post and take some kind of offense, but given my typical readership I probably don’t have to worry about this too much. Overall, I’m reasonably comfortable with my lack of promotion support, but I do think that there are some aspects of academic promotions that leave a lot to be desired. Let’s hope I’m still as philosophical about this when the email comes around next year congratulating all those who’ve been successful.

External examining

It’s a few weeks into our semester which means it’s time to prepare and set the exams. The process here, as in many other UK universities, is that those who teach on the course set the questions. The exam is then checked by someone else, then by a committee, and then sent to the external examiner. The problem is that to get this all done in time, the exam has to be set before the middle of the semester. In many cases, people setting questions haven’t yet starting teaching their part of the course.

Personally, I think that setting exam papers so early in a semester is not ideal. It’s not maybe a major problem, but I would certainly prefer to set the paper after I’ve taught most of the course. I don’t think that setting it early is necessarily disastrous, it just feels like I’ll have a better sense of how to assess the students later in the semester than I do early in the semester. The UK is, however, so fixated with the external examiner system that it seems like it is virtually impossible to change it. I have, however, taught in the US where no such process exists and I don’t think the outcomes were worse as a consequence of this (or rather, I don’t think the students were particularly disadvantaged).

The main reason for having external examiners is, supposedly, to provide comparisons and to check that there is a reasonable consistency between UK universities. To me, this is a general comparison, rather than a specific course by course comparison. If so, why do they need to see the papers before the students sit the exams? Surely, if they were to look at the papers afterwards (when they attend the exam board for example) they could comment on the standards and, if there were any issues, this could be addressed for the next exam session. The point is to make sure that degree programmes across the UK are consistent not to specifically check (on an annual basis) individual courses. They are, of course, related but I don’t think anyone would suggest that every course at every university should be taught in the same way and at exactly the same level. What one wants to ensure is that graduates from different universities with the same degree classifications have, roughly speaking, the same skills and abilities.

I don’t really think, however, that there is much chance of changing the system anytime in the near future. Partly, I think it’s because it is seen as a strength of the UK system. We have external examiners who check everything and therefore our degrees are somehow more valid than those elsewhere. Furthermore, external examiners are now used to actually check for mistakes on exam papers. I think this is wrong. Why should we need external examiners to do this. Surely we could just as easily check our papers ourselves. There’s nothing particularly special about external examiners. They’re just academics from other UK universities. However, we now put so much emphasis on research that many (or at least some) academics can’t be bothered to put any real effort into setting their exams properly. Consequently we need this convoluted and lengthy process (involving external examiners) in order to compensate for the minority who can’t do their jobs properly. Personally, I’d rather we insisted that people did their jobs properly instead of all of us having to set our exams much earlier than is probably ideal.

The worst kind of people

Every now and again I encounter (or am forced to deal with) people who I regard as having no real sense of common decency. What I’m referring to are people who are selfish, rude, arrogant, opinionated, and don’t take heed of other people’s views (to name but a few of the characteristics of the type of people I would typically despise). I work in academia, which has a reasonable number of fairly arrogant, self-centered people, but I’m sure they can be encountered anywhere.

I typically encounter these people in meetings or via email exchanges amongst a group who are trying to deal with some issue. The problem I have is I hate letting them get away with expressing some opinion or view that is – in my opinion at least – objectionable. I will challenge them and will try to do so politely (although I don’t always hide my disdain particularly well) and in a manner that is as logical as I can be. I will sometimes even acknowledge when it turns out that the view they’ve expressed has some merit. The reverse rarely happens though. What I’ve noticed, however, is that I’m often alone in doing so. When I discuss the situation with others, their view is often (if not always) consistent with mine, but they can’t bring themselves to get involved as it’s just too much effort and, often, too stressful. One person I spoke with recently was so upset after a meeting they seemed to be suggesting that they would rather not go to such meetings in future.

I’m starting to have some sympathy with this, as I came home on Friday with a headache that really hasn’t gone away and I think it is largely because of a series of email exchanges I had with one of these people that, although not explicitly unpleasant, was fairly annoying. My solution in future is, potentially, to avoid such confrontations. I could easily do so, as everyone else seems to do this without any problems. The issue, however, is that these people will then get away with this type of behaviour and will, in some cases, actually negatively influence what we are doing. I also hate the idea that such people are able to progress simply because any form of interaction with them is so unpleasant that many just won’t bother. I suspect that I will not be able to avoid interacting as I think I will find it difficult to stand back and let them get away with poor behaviour. I just sometimes wish others would do the same. If enough did so, we would probably improve our working environment substantially.