A tiny but shocking article appeared to today’s Times newspaper, a small column of text summarising a much more in depth article by David Colquhoun, available on his own website. Last month Queen Mary University announced it was going to have to tighten its belt and cut the number of staff. This is hardly surprising given the state of the economy, most businesses and public sector departments are suffering in one way or another. What David has drawn attention to is the method being used to decide who stays and who goes amongst the research and other academic staff. What follows is possible the most infuriatingly stupid example of HR gone mad I have ever encountered.
You can tell it’s HR that is to blame, because it’s all about the numbers, and by extension the money. In order for professors to keep their jobs, they must have have published 11 papers between 2008 and 2011, of which two are deemed to be ‘high quality’. They must also have had at least one PhD student complete their thesis. What actually constitutes ’high quality’ is decided upon by the university, which is basically a publication in journals that get lots of citations. Journals such as Nature and Science get most of their citations from very few articles, skewing the figures to such an extent that the concept of ‘quality’ becomes utterly baseless.
What makes this even more laughable is that most Nobel laureates would fail to pass these requirements. Peter Higgs, the man who predicted the recently discovered Higgs-Boson would be in line to be fired by QMUL. This single observation at once displays the rationale behind the requirements. It was never about keeping high quality staff and eminent professors in their field, it’s all about making as much money as possible from as few researchers as possible. Incredibly it gets worse still, it is possible to buy immunity! In order to do this a researcher must have published 26 papers between 2008 and 2011, with six being this rather ambiguous target of ‘high quality’, thus encouraging quantity over quality. If a researcher is publishing papers at such a rate, it is highly unlikely they are writing or even reading them.
Requiring a PhD student to complete their thesis for the purposes of quota filling, rather than the attainment of any actual standard is not only deeply unethical but also deeply flawed. Once academics and students become aware of the university’s standards most will simply look elsewhere. The best academics can effectively choose where they go, but none are likely to be attracted to work at QMUL under such conditions.