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An Open Letter to the Chair of Council, from a concerned member of the community

Yesterday, our member Prof Mahesan Niranjan sent us a copy of an open letter that he sent to the Chair of Council. He asked us to circulate it to our members, and to urge them to circulate it to other members of the university community and beyond. He has given us permission to reproduce it here, so please find the text below, without further comment.


School of Electronics and Computer Science
University of Southampton

12 December 2017

Dr Gill Rider,
Chair of University Council.

An Open Letter on Recent Happenings

As I mentioned in an email last week, the University attracting media spotlight for the wrong reason concerns me greatly. I know that very high salaries paid to a small number of people at that top of organisations, which is a national problem, cannot be addressed by targeted attacks on a few individuals. I also know that it is usual to maintain “stiff upper lip” over salary paid to a colleague. Hence our own Vice Chancellor’s salary is not a topic I would comment on.

But there are more serious issues at stake that make me write this, and fundamental to what I write are two observations:

  1. University is about scholarship. We are a community of scholars in the pursuit of discovering new knowledge and in its dissemination, both to the wider society and to the junior members who come to study here. We educate by stretching their minds. Our research is driven by intellectual curiosity. Scholarship being our core business, academic staff are our revenue generators.
  2. In a research active university like ours, there is significant subsidy from teaching income to research. Research grants do not cover their full cost (FEC) and are subsidised from the block grant (QR) and student fees. To a certain extent this subsidy is justified because unless we engage in cutting edge research, we cannot educate students at the frontiers of knowledge. But universities have pushed this too far, paying for highly expensive research which ought to be funded either directly by the Government (e.g. MRC’s Laboratory for Molecular Biology) or by industry (e.g. Drug discovery research at GSK). When this subsidy to research is high, we cannot give our students the attention they deserve — and pay for — resulting in diminished quality of education.

I submit that drifting away from a recognition of the above two factors is what has caused the current unhealthy situation in which the Sector is attracting much media focus and public anger nationally, and we see much frustration and unhappiness among staff on our own campus.

Since my short tenure as Senate appointed member of University Council ended in August, I have no formal position to raise issues of concern directly with you. Hence this open appeal.

  1. I ask Council to consider announcing that while the University will honour the present Vice Chancellor’s contract, in future appointments we will set a salary cap of £ 200,000 for this position and scale down other senior salaries similarly. Let us take the lead and set an example to the Sector and declare in our advertisement that we in Southampton do not take pursuit of financial reward to be an indicator of talent.
  2. I ask Council to intervene and persuade management to reverse the decision to target Voluntary Severance on selected disciplines. If the primary problem we are trying to solve is a financial one, it makes better sense, in the first instance, to run a VS scheme campus-wide so the shock may be absorbed by the whole community. Should that not achieve the reduction necessary, we can scale down selected areas in line with demand for those subjects. But why do this over such short timescale? At the high level, in theory, we are running a ten-year plan with admirable long-term thinking, but in practice, at the implementation level, we are acting in haste, giving people just ten weeks to decide on a VS offer.
  3. I ask Council to take a closer look at the subsidy between teaching and research. Are we engaged in expensive research in Highfield and other loss-making projects in faraway places? Is it fair that the financial burden of these — however prestigious they are — be borne by our students incurring long-term debt? Let us work towards closer integration between teaching and research so that expensive research in some areas is not subsidised by teaching income from others.
  4. I ask Council to intervene and change the discourse on our campus, from one that continuously sees academic staff merely as salary costs, to one which sees us as revenue generators, achieving it through our scholarship. Shortly after the VS scheme was announced, I met three colleagues from one of the targeted areas. They were in shock. They had no idea that their subject area was financially weak. Over the years, they have had no information from which they could have worked it out and taken part in the planning process that could have re-built their areas. This is because much of the planning within Faculties happens with minimal transparency or consultation, which in turn is because staff do not feature in our discourse as revenue generators. An attitude change here would increase engagement to the benefit of us all.
  5. I ask Council to persuade management to suspend the appraisal system which in its present form does not appear to be fit for purpose. Insistence on a sharply peaked distribution of quantified performance is the biggest demoralising factor on campus at present. I am aware several colleagues, including myself, are working hard to resist the thought “if after doing so much I am slapped with a 3/5 and declared mediocre, should I not do less next year?” I myself will not be reducing my efforts because I am driven by intellectual curiosity and my commitment to my students, but the offence I suffer serves no purpose. “It is a waste of time,” an appraiser agreed with me, “it is a waste of time,” that appraiser’s appraiser also agreed with me. “Why then are you guys doing it?” I asked. “Because that is what we are told to do,” say both! In a good university such as ours, lost productivity due to diminished morale may outweigh any gains from a badly designed system of performance management. Please, let us not take that risk.
  6. I ask Council to create conditions in which the Ten Year Plan is owned by — and felt to be owned by — the entire University community, than as a top-down adventure imposed upon them. I myself am fully persuaded by the necessity of it and was supportive of it throughout its planning stages which overlapped with my tenure on Council. Across campus, I see very little awareness and buy-in from colleagues. Hence, I ask that the group working on its implementation be expanded with five colleagues elected by Senate to play a role in effective consultations, and to have a say in prioritising projects.

Dear Gill, at the start of this academic year, I emailed you and the Vice Chancellor with a photograph of an overcrowded class with my students stood at the back and seated on the aisles. You may recall that I ended that email with the comment: “Forgive me, I write because I care.” You were gracious in your reply, saying “Niranjan, I know you care.”

The effect of your acknowledgement was magical. My subject of Machine Learning is taught under testing conditions, with class size doubling, students admitted without sufficient scrutiny of their mathematical background and suggestions for improvement often rebuffed by middle management. Yet, I am pleased to say, I pulled it off, receiving a long applause at the end of the module, evaluation only slightly damaged (4.6/5, down from 4.8/5) and a student commenting: “One of the greatest and most stimulating module I had at University, in my 4 years.”

I do not say the above to blow my own trumpet. I hope it illustrates that our commitment to students and acknowledgement by university leaders of what we do well can be far more effective than top-down management and the neat “bell curve” of appraisal scores. The former is the best way to get the most out of the business of scholarship we are here for, and the latter is the way to kill it.

My position while making this plea remains exactly the same (“I write because I care”), and I very much hope your acknowledgement of it does not change either.

I also hope that sharing my thoughts openly with you and our University community might help shift the current mood on campus from one of anger to one of dialogue and debate, and that collegiality — a pillar of our strategy — is not perceived by the community as simply a catchphrase.

Yours Sincerely,

Mahesan Niranjan
Professor of Electronics and Computer Science

 

One Comment

  1. Sarah Nield says:

    Thank you Professor Niranjan for your constructive engagement with Council. Let’s hope that they respond positively.

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