Published: 4th February, 2021
To sign the petition opposing managers’ plans, click here.
Recently management at the University of Leicester put forward a business case to slash the School of Mathematics by making redundant all pure maths researchers, and to similarly slash the School of Informatics by making redundant all researchers in “foundations of computing”. This is an analysis of their proposed business case.
Note: The original document is marked confidential, although it is not clear why since few if any details in the document could be considered sensitive. We quote directly from the business case where details are publicly known.
The following analysis is from an Informatics point of view, but many of the points are applicable to business cases in other areas across the University.
When making this analysis, there are many aspects to consider. Does the business case broadly make sense? Is this business case sensible from a financial point of view? Is the business case legally permissible? Is the business case aligned with the University’s goals? We try to answer some of these questions.
Does it make sense for the business case to be based on non-financial considerations?
In short, no. Indeed, throughout the business case, the reasons for change are clearly financial. Thus, right at the start there is an untruth behind the whole affair. However, saying “the reason for change is not financial” is advantageous for university managers: they do not need to justify any of their proposals by reference to any concrete data, or normal drivers of business change. Instead, their justification is simply that they wish things to be different. Not financially better, just different. And this involves making lots of staff redundant. Of course, this makes it harder to argue against their case.
Do these changes risk making things financially worse for the university?
Yes. Informatics is already extremely profitable, and has been for at least the last 10 years. We are a relatively small department that takes huge numbers of students (350 international MSc students currently, and a similar amount of undergraduates, together with paying PhD students etc). Any change to the department is likely to adversely affect these numbers. Making half the research staff redundant is likely to be catastrophic.
Is it legal for the University managers to make changes, based on “non-financial considerations”, that might destroy departments and cause financial devastation for the University?
Probably not. Even though the managers claim that the changes are not financially driven, there are statutory requirements for senior management and council to operate according to the best interests of the University. Clearly, destroying a department that is highly profitable is unlikely (!) to be in the best interests of the University. Thus, at the very least, they are potentially opening themselves to legal action based on failure to discharge their statutory duty.
There are many other legal avenues that could be pursued. For example, is it legal to make redundant employees who you have hired to conduct teaching and research, simply because you subsequently decide that you prefer (for non-financial reasons) a different research area? This raises issues of staff precarity (any research active member of staff can be made redundant on the whim of senior management… every few years the hot research topic changes and researchers are fired and hired to match), and also of academic freedom (research staff are permitted to pursue research only in certain areas, which are subject to change at management whim).
Will the department be able to deliver teaching adequately after these changes?
Clearly making 10 of the 20 REF-submitted research active staff redundant will significantly affect our ability to deliver courses to students. There is no plan in the business case for how these people will be replaced. Instead, any impact on teaching will be mitigated by a “contingency plan”. There are four such contingency plans mentioned in the business case. These “will be put in place” sometime in the future. No details are provided for what might be contained in these plans. However, implicit in the business case is the idea that the redundant posts will be filled by AI+ researchers who will also deliver the teaching, but it is not clear when these positions will become available. Even so, it is likely that there will be a period of at least a few years when teaching is even more under-resourced than it is currently.
Does it make sense for the merged department to concentrate research solely on AI+? Is it likely that the University can establish a “world-class” school in AI+?
Almost certainly not. The proposal talks about a world-class merged school concentrating on AI, computational modelling, data science and “digitalisation”. The business case states “We have some very focused, existing strengths in AI […] but these strengths are too limited to enable us to expand activities and capture potential opportunities”. We agree that there are a small number of researchers active in these areas (ironically, some of the most successful are now among those considered for redundancy, which obviously makes no sense). However, establishing a world-class school in AI+ will be extremely difficult. Many universities have been pursuing AI research for decades. Many more have expanded in these areas in the last decade. The market is extremely crowded and it is unclear what Leicester’s competitive advantage could be. Hiring world-class researchers in this area will be difficult for Leicester (currently 77th out of 121 in the Guardian Good University Guide), especially given adverse publicity over the last 5 years or so (relating to previous attempts to make pure mathematics redundant – along with other areas – and this current behaviour towards staff).
What about teaching? Is it possible to attract many more students by offering AI+ programmes, thereby strengthening the financial position of the University?
Yes, this is possible, but not likely given recent experience.
The business case claims, “A benefit to the University of Leicester to offer competitive and sustainable programmes and research to meet the rising market of artificial intelligence (AI), computational modelling, digitalisation and data science, improving our academic excellence and global standing.” (sic)
Is it possible that the new programmes will be highly profitable and strengthen University finances?
Yes, it is possible but it is unlikely. The business case is about making 10 of 20 Informatics researchers redundant in a department that is already wildly profitable. Even if the new programmes recruit extremely well, it is unlikely they can match the current intake numbers. And they will have to be taught using many fewer staff.
However, based on recent experience, there is not much demand for these new programmes: The University invested significant resources into setting up a “data science” undergraduate degree programme a few years ago. It was quickly scrapped because it failed to attract any interest from students. This suggests that there is no strong student demand for “data science” programmes, at least at Leicester. It is not clear that making lots of staff redundant and rebranding what remains will be enough to change this.
In summary, at least from the teaching point of view, investing heavily in AI+ programmes seems extremely risky.
If none of these changes make sense, why is management pursuing them? This is a good question.
There is not much transparency at management level, but we do know that last year’s financial statements haven’t yet been published. This is worrying – and part of our worry is that we don’t know the reason for this delay. But it’s almost certain that it means the University’s auditors EY are raising serious questions about its financial situation.
Our best guess is that the executive board can only satisfy its creditors and/or other financial authorities is to cut a large number of staff. (See, for example, this recent Twitter thread for further details on the finances.) Certain departments are protected by members of senior management, and others are thrown to the wolves. The proposal for Informatics is one of the results.
What can people do to help?
We believe the proposal in the business case, if enacted, would seriously harm the University in many ways (not least, financially). Our reasoning is laid out above. If you agree, please support our efforts in any way you can. A good first step is to sign this petition.