On the tenth day of Christmas

On the tenth day of Christmas
my VC sent to me:
Ten New Professors
Nine Heads of Service
Eight Interventions
Seven Senior Staff
Six Student Surveys
Five REF Stars
Four Closing Calls
Three French Exchanges
Two DVCs
And restructure of the university


“Can we make a start, please, gentlemen. And, er, lady.” Sam smiled graciously at Karen, who was sitting to his right.

Karen did not return the smile. Prat. Pity he’d been confirmed in the DVC’s post.

The others made their way from the refreshments table. They were in no hurry. Karen caught snatches of their conversation. If boasting counted as conversation these days.

“…high H factor…”
“…really competitive, but the reviewer said we’d almost done enough…”
“…higher than…”
“…almost REFfable already…”

She sighed, and tried to tune them out. Would anyone notice if she brought the Jobs.ac.uk website up during the meeting ?

Sam cleared his throat loudly. There was a very gradual reduction in the noise level, and eyes began to be turned in his direction.

“Right, well, let’s get on.”

“Now, first, Julie from the Secretary’s office couldn’t be here to take the minutes, so, Karen, I was wondering if you could do it?”

Karen’s look was glacial. “No, sorry. I’m leading on two items, I can’t take minutes and present them.”

“Oh, yes, of course. Alright then. Um. Any volunteers?”

The other members of the Research Committee fixed their gazes on the table.

Sam sighed. “Well, OK, I guess I’ll have a go. That way they can say whatever I like, I suppose!”

“Right. Well. First item. Chair’s report.” He looked at his notes. “I don’t have much to say, actually. Nearly Christmas, bit of a dead time for research news, isn’t it? Um. Let me see. Nope, I don’t think I’ve heard about any new grants since last time. Anyone else?”

There was a collective shaking of heads. Karen raised her hand slightly.

“Karen?”

“The library have secured a large grant from the EU to research student attitudes to electronic library use.”

“The library? Is it proper research?”

Karen sighed. “Well, it’s Horizon 2020, if you count that as proper research.”

Sam wasn’t sure if she was being sarcastic. “Well, that sounds marvellous. Can you send me the details over? And get it into the weekly newsletter?”

“Again? OK, if you think people won’t mind it appearing for a second time.”

Sam was leaning towards ‘yes, she’s being sarcastic,’ but he still wasn’t completely sure, so he played safe. “Oh, gosh, I must have missed that week. Maybe it was when I was in China on university business.”

“Maybe so. I’ll send you the summary.” Karen stopped herself from adding ‘again’. Keep your powder dry, she told herself. She even forced herself to give a pinched smile, to show she wasn’t really being sarcastic. Even though she was.

“Great. Well, well done to the library. Can we minute that?” He looked at Karen. She looked back. “Oh, of course, it’s me. I’ll minute that!” He wrote on the pad in front of him.

The Research Committee sat in silence while they waited for him to finish his notes.

The meeting droned on. There were so many standing items that Karen was sure it was an exact repeat of the last meeting. And the one before that. She contributed her reports mechanically; they were received without interest. She was just looking at the details of an likely looking job in London when a change in Sam’s tone caught her attention.

“Right. Item eight. Oh, this is exciting.”

The Research Committee did not look particularly excited.

Sam looked up. “Yes, this is great. Remember that meeting we had just before the REF submission, where I challenged you to help me to recruit some stars? In fact, one of them is sitting here now – take a bow, Nigel!” Nigel nodded his head gently in recognition.

“Right. Well. We’ve been given some more money to do the same again. In fact,” he paused, the better to prepare his audience for the full impact of his announcement, “in fact, we can recruit TEN new professors between now and September. What do you think of that?”

It was plain that the Research Committee didn’t know what to think. They sat in silence. Eventually, Nigel put up his hand.

“The thing is, Sam. It’s great that you’ve got some funding for more research, I think we’re all delighted about that. But is this really the right place to be spending it? I mean, professors, you know, they’re expensive.” Nigel’s use of the third person implied that he disapproved of the professorial salary scale. “I don’t know if I speak for my colleagues here, but, you know, I could really do with a few more young researchers on the team, I mean, we could get two post-docs for the price of a professor, maybe even two and a half, and think how much work they could do. We could go stratospheric with publications! And we wouldn’t be tied into permanent contracts and all of the expense that brings.”

There were nods of approval around the table. The Research Committee became almost animated.

Sam looked as though he’d been expecting this line of discussion. He leaned back in his chair, crossed his arms behind his head. “Ah, well, the VC’s one step ahead of you there.”

“We’re going to get post-docs as well?”

“The new professors will each be allowed to recruit one post-doc and two research students ‘on the house’, as they say. Plus of course any more  they can afford with the funding they bring in. So you’re right, we’re expecting very big things.”

There was a short pause while this sank in.

Nigel seemed to have taken on the mantle of group spokesman, perhaps as a result of having been identified as one of Burston Central’s stars, or just because he was quite new, and perhaps idealistic about the possibilities of research at the university, or bravado, or a combination of all of those things. He tried again.

“I must have got this wrong, Sam. It sounds as though you’re proposing to recruit ten completely new research groups, rather than consolidating existing ones.” This was exactly how Nigel himself had been recruited. Though there’d be no mention of post-docs and research students that time round – since on that occasion, existing publications had been the key selling point of the candidates.

“Well, I prefer to call it ensuring that we have a well-rounded portfolio of activity, Nigel.”

“But, you might, you might, you might end up with new research groups in competition with existing ones. Surely we need to have some input into the strategy?”

“Now then, I think you can trust me to work strategically to get the right balance of exciting new work with the existing situation.”

Sam looked at his watch. “We really do need to get on. Now, we’re going to follow the same process as last time. We’ll have a search committee, nominations to me by the end of December, I’ll follow up with personal communications. Please treat this as confidential. It’s a very specialist process, as you know. Advertising won’t get us the candidates we need, and I don’t want to raise people’s expectations.”

Phil raised his hand. Sam nodded to him.

“Would you consider internal candidates?”

Sam tilted his head to one side. “I’m inclined to think that we offer opportunities to internal candidates through the Research Recognition Scheme. If people haven’t been successful in that…”

“But internal appointments are different. They don’t have additional staffing…” Phil tailed off.

The other members of the Research Committee were carefully looking elsewhere: at the table, at their devices, at Sam. Poor old Phil. Professorial applications were each considered by the Committee. Obviously, Phil had had to leave the room while his was discussed, but he knew the process. The consensus had been that he should have known better than to attempt an application.  As Sam had said at the time, ” If we gave them out like Smarties, where would we be?” It was a shame he had to continue on the Committee, but his head of department had insisted.

Sam broke the silence. “Right. Names to me by the end of December. I’ll be checking my mail all through Christmas, so keep them coming. I’ll need names, contact details, brief CVs. Next meeting, er, do we have a date yet?” He looked at Karen. She looked back at him, making no effort to check her iPad.

Phil was tapping away on his. “26 January.”

“Great, thanks, Phil. See you all then. Oh, and have a good break.” he added.

Sam got his head down and busied himself with his notes until the rest of the Committee had left the room. One or two lingered, perhaps hoping to speak to him, but his resolute attention to the page deterred them all. Once the door had closed, he looked up, scooped up the notes, picked up his coat, shovelled the last of the biscuits from the refreshment table into his bag, and walked to the door. Four o’clock. Hardly worth starting anything new now. He headed for the car park.

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Recommendations 2: Research

Peter looked round the table. Everyone was staring at their own laptop screen, tapping away frantically.

He cleared his throat loudly. There was a perceptible increase in tapping frequency, but nobody looked up.

“Right, everybody,” he aimed for his best conference chairing tone: firm and in control. “It’s two minutes past, and I know how busy you all are. Let’s get started. As usual, we’ve got a busy agenda, but I’m hoping to finish in record time today.”

One by one, heads were raised, and eyes turned towards him. One or two people glanced apologetically at him, and then returned to tapping, with gestures which might have meant ‘be with you in a minute, I must just finish this email’.

Peter turned to his left. “Marjorie, do we have any apologies?”

“Professor Dawson, Professor Patel, Professor O’Connolly, Dr Wisdom, Joyce Snape.”

Peter looked disapproving. “I know that our research professors have very busy schedules, but I do think that the Research Office should manage to get their representative to this very important committee. Can you minute our disappointment that Ms Snape isn’t with us, again?”

Marjorie leaned over and whispered loudly. “Well, actually, Professor Packer, Dr Snape did send in a reasonable excuse, she’s had to go to HEFCE to talk about that audit problem with the research budget. None of the professors actually sent in a reason, I just read out their names for the apologies because they never attend. It just seemed quicker.”

Peter frowned. “Let the minutes stand, Marjorie. The Research Office should be represented at the University’s principal Research Committee, whatever the reason. How are we to get any accountability from the administrators if they don’t turn up?”

There was a slight shuffling around the table. Most people were well aware that Joyce was away trying to persuade HEFCE officials that the discrepancies in their research budget were due to confusion rather than dishonesty. A lack of accountability of research budget-holders was possibly more of a problem than the Research Office failing to act on the decisions of their committee.

Peter ignored the unease in the room. “Right. Next item. Chair’s report.”

He looke down at his notes. “The research office has sent me in a report of activity since the last meeting. Fifteen applications in, for amounts ranging from £5,000 to £72,000. Pretty small beer, but worse than that, no major grant awards since our last meeting. That’s very poor. We’re nowhere near our targets for this year. I’m going to bring this up again in item 4b.”

Phil raised his hand tentatively.

Chris nodded graciously at him. “Dr Palmer.”

“Er, Peter, Professor Packer, it’s not a very good time for writing applications. Most people have had a lot of exam preparation and marking to do. Won’t there be more opportunities over the summer?”

Peter looked stern. “I do realise that you’re relatively new to this committee, Dr Palmer, but we like to set aspirations high all the year round. If you were more successful in bidding in your area, then you’d be able to buy yourself out of all of your time-consuming teaching and marking, wouldn’t you? That should be your target for next year.”

Phil shrank back slightly. He quite liked teaching. Getting out of it wasn’t his target at all.

“Right, next item in my report. Did any of you read the Times Higher last week?”

Blank looks all around the table. Phil had it delivered every week, but he kept quiet, in case it was some kind of trick question.

“Well, maybe you should,” continued Peter, “sometimes they do have some interesting stuff. For instance, this report.” He waved a print-out. “According to this student survey, students don’t understand how important research is to the value of their degrees.”

Phil raised his hand. Peter nodded at him.

“Wasn’t it more that, er, they were asking for lecturers to spend more time improving their teaching over and above focusing on research?”

He was aware of a slight reduction in tapping, and a movement of heads towards him. Peter stared at him. He looked somewhat lost for words.

“Well, obviously, Dr Palmer, I’m no expert in social science research, but I don’t think the response rate to this survey lets us determine any such thing. Nick Hillman from HEPI is quoted here as saying ‘it is clear from today’s data that students are not always certain of the benefits of research-informed or research-led teaching. Where they exist, they need to be more clearly communicated to students.’”

Phil wasn’t an expert in social science research either, but he had downloaded the actual report. He was pretty sure it suggested that universities should put more effort into improving teaching skills, and that students were less interested in research excellence. However, he could tell that it was in a minority in the room. “Oh. Sorry. My mistake.” He shrank back in his chair.

Peter raised an eyebrow at him, and then returned to his notes. “So, I propose that the Research Committee mandates me to request a further increase in budget to cover a) a marketing campaign to explain the benefits of research to the university’s reputation and rankings and b),” he looked up to emphasise this suggestion, of which he was very proud, “and b), to employ two post-docs in each faculty, to do some science communication in addition to their research briefs.”

He looked around the table in triumph. “What do you all think?”

There was silence. Even the tapping was paused. One or two people made eye contact, unusually for this committee.

A man in a tweed jacket cleared his throat. Everyone turned towards him. “Um,” he said. “Well. It seems like a reasonable response. We definitely need to spend more time and money on research.”

There was vigorous nodding.

“Thank you, Professor Pargeter.” Peter joined in the nodding. “So, I take it that’s agreed. Minute that, would you, Marjorie. Obviously it’ll find its way to Senate from there, but I won’t wait for that. I’ll go and see Phyllis straight after the meeting, to get an appointment with the VC. Excellent. Right, next item….”

The tapping resumed.