In case you haven’t heard what’s going on in Leicester …

Strangely, this is my second post about Leicester in just a few months, but it’s about something a lot more depressing than the football team’s fairytale winning of the Premier League (but let me quickly offer my congratulations to them for winning their first Champions League match — I won’t offer advice about whether they are worth betting on to win that competition too). News has just filtered through to me that the mathematics department is facing compulsory redundancies.

The structure of the story is wearily familiar after what happened with USS pensions. The authorities declare that there is a financial crisis, and that painful changes are necessary. They offer a consultation. In the consultation their arguments appear to be thoroughly refuted. The refutation is then ignored and the changes go ahead.

Here is a brief summary of the painful changes that are proposed for the Leicester mathematics department. The department has 21 permanent research-active staff. Six of those are to be made redundant. There are also two members of staff who concentrate on teaching. Their number will be increased to three. How will the six be chosen? Basically, almost everyone will be sacked and then invited to reapply for their jobs in a competitive process, and the plan is to get rid of “the lowest performers” at each level of seniority. Those lowest performers will be considered for “redeployment” — which means that the university will make efforts to find them a job of a broadly comparable nature, but doesn’t guarantee to succeed. It’s not clear to me what would count as broadly comparable to doing pure mathematical research.

How is performance defined? It’s based on things like research grants, research outputs, teaching feedback, good citizenship, and “the ongoing and potential for continued career development and trajectory”, whatever that means. In other words, on the typical flawed metrics so beloved of university administrators, together with some subjective opinions that will presumably have to come from the department itself — good luck with offering those without creating enemies for life.

Oh, and another detail is that they want to reduce the number of straight maths courses and promote actuarial science and service teaching in other departments.

There is a consultation period that started in late August and ends on the 30th of September. So the lucky members of the Leicester mathematics faculty have had a whole month to marshall their to-be-ignored arguments against the changes.

It’s important to note that mathematics is not the only department that is facing cuts. But it’s equally important to note that it is being singled out: the university is aiming for cuts of 4.5% on average, and mathematics is being asked to make a cut of more like 20%. One reason for this seems to be that the department didn’t score all that highly in the last REF. It’s a sorry state of affairs for a university that used to boast Sir Michael Atiyah as its chancellor.

I don’t know what can be done to stop this, but at the very least there is a petition you can sign. It would be good to see a lot of signatures, so that Leicester can see how damaging a move like this will be to its reputation.

32 Responses to “In case you haven’t heard what’s going on in Leicester …”

  1. J.P. McCarthy Says:

    An issue that Ireland is facing is that pure level maths postgraduate study is being left in the dust by statistics, applied mathematics and financial mathematics.

    Mathematics departments in the Institute of Technology sector are finding it very difficult to hire ‘pure’ mathematicians for lectureships as there are so few. These positions are not open to non-EU applicants as these are primarily teaching rather than research positions.

  2. Anonymous Says:

    For those that would like to see the “Business case” made for the proposed restructure of the mathematics department at Leicester, http://wikisend.com/download/123788.

    • gowers Says:

      Thanks for that. If you want some ghoulish humour, download the file and turn to the “Equality Impact Assessment”, which starts on page 22. It points out that those affected are disproportionately older, disproportionately male, disproportionately white, disproportionately non-British, disproportionately Christian, and disproportionately heterosexual. It also says, “Due to the small numbers of staff reductions (5-6 people) it will not be possible to assess the equality impact of the final outcome.”

      I rather like the implication that one could argue against a move like this on the grounds that it disproportionately disadvantages heterosexual white Christian males.

    • Anonymous Says:

      Also note how there is not one mention of the impact on PhD students, in fact, the word “PhD” doesn’t appear once…

    • gowers Says:

      I’m now wondering whether what I described as ghoulish humour above may have some truth to it. In this article about sexism at universities, Paul Boyle is described as an “impact champion” in the fight to reduce the gender gap. To quote the article: “Prof Boyle has a target for a 1.5% increase each year in women professors, with the aim of having 30% of professorships held by women by 2020. `I’ll be frank, if we felt we could go faster than that we would,’ says Prof Boyle.”

      Could the mathematics department be suffering because it is overwhelmingly male?

    • Yemon Choi Says:

      Could the mathematics department be suffering because it is overwhelmingly male?

      I find this very hard to believe, even if it is subsequently claimed as an excuse. From the partial information I’ve found, the REF explanation (and VC’s fondness for things like “strategic prioritization of programmes”) seems much more likely. Boyle was, before coming to Leicester, the CEO of the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council where I suspect a predilection for this way of thinking would have gone with the job.

    • gowers Says:

      I don’t think it would ever be claimed as an excuse. I just wonder whether thoughts like that might be in the back of Paul Boyle’s mind. I realize that I didn’t say in the post above that Boyle is the Vice Chancellor of Leicester University.

    • Yiftach Says:

      We can speculate about what went through is head all day long. But unless he was stupid enough to admit it there won’t be any evidence. So there is not much point for this discussion.

    • gowers Says:

      I admit that it’s pure speculation and wasn’t suggesting a long and serious discussion about it.

  3. mathtuition88 Says:

    Reblogged this on Singapore Maths Tuition and commented:
    Math teachers / students / Math lovers do sign this petition to stop Leicester university from cutting 20% of their math researchers/lecturers. #mathisimportant

  4. sdf Says:

    One wonders how this will affect the PhD students, looking at the Leicester maths website they seem to have quite a few?

  5. Alexander Says:

    Good question about the PhD students. I have asked the admin staff in Leicester. The answer was (approximately) as follows: “It happens sometimes that the supervisors leave. We will do our best to support the PhD students.” But this is just the form of politeness. I have no idea how it may be done in reality…

  6. victor Says:

    Isn’t there some form of tenure in the UK? I’m sure this wouldn’t be allowed in a university in the US (but please correct me if I am wrong). I think in the US the school or relevant body has to go into some form of receivership, and “financial exigency” wouldn’t qualify. Are the faculty at Leicester taking this to court? It seems that any administration can pay themselves lots of money, cry about a budget crisis, and then get rid of faculty.

    • Perdita Stevens Says:

      No, tenure in the UK was abolished.

    • Victor Says:

      Oh dear! Post abolition, did salaries rise to make up for the lost job security? And where did all that extra money from tuition increases go? Clearly not to the faculty.

      And if they don’t have tenure, do they have some sort of redressal procedure? Or is what’s known in the US as “at-will employment”? I can’t imagine that tenure was abolished without leaving faculty any sort of protection at all.

    • gowers Says:

      The tuition fees didn’t bring in extra money to universities, because the government reduced what they gave to universities by the same amount. And actually it’s questionable whether they brought extra money to the government, because a lot of people don’t pay back their student loans.

    • Noah Snyder Says:

      American-style “at-will employment” doesn’t exist in the UK (the US is very unusual among developed countries on this front). There are statutory requirements including that all terminations be “justified”, and there may be additional protections in the contracts specifically with faculty.

  7. victor Says:

    By the way, if the faculty do want to go to court, I’m happy to chip in a small amount to pay for the costs. That might be just as effective (if not more) than a petition.

  8. Eeyore Says:

    What I find most disturbing about this is “aiming for cuts of 4.5% on average, and mathematics is being asked to make a cut of more like 20%. One reason for this seems to be that the department didn’t score all that highly in the last REF.”.

    As someone who did started out in physics, I know that any measurement should come with error bars. REF, NSS, and all the other matter of fact metrics these idiots use emphatically do not come with error bars, yet they are used as the basis of such decisions. Error bars are ridiculous I hear you say…. well if so then the measurement is ridiculous in the first place.

    So. Damn. Frustrating. To be honest this problem is bigger than Leicester, its to do with a broader metric culture that emanates from politicians.

  9. Derek Says:

    Surprisingly one sided post. Surely there is a number of mathematicians that Leicester could have employed which is too many? If so what is that number and what should be the options for the university to correct over-hiring? Are the mathematicians at fault for not negotiating stronger contracts?

    It sounds like a sad loss but this post provides no context from which to judge the situation.

    • Eeyore Says:

      Your first question is relevant. Any reasonable cross disciplinary university should have a mathematics department, and any reasonable mathematics department should aim, at a bare minimum, to have at least a few faculty each in at least a dozen or so subfields spanning the range of mathematics. On the basis of that estimate one would hope for *at least* 30-40 mathematics faculty in a mathematics department.

      That is a ‘micro’ level answer to your question. At a ‘macro’ level let’s think about the broad requirements of mathematically trained people in the country (or world).

      The move towards compulsory mathematics for 16-18 year olds (see e.g. https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/mar/16/osborne-budget-compulsory-maths-lessons-under-18s-student-children-schools) and comments from non-mathematically trained business leaders (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-33735715, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UxcKLMANDBA) give some hints about the demand that one should anticipate for mathematics in the future.

      That demand is not just for applied or statistical topics but also pure ones. I work in applied mathematics with significant applications to the real world but essential to my work is a basic grounding in pure mathematics too. In fact I am learning about a particular pure topic in the context of my current work. Such is the nature of any form of progress, you can’t predict what methods you are going to need. Fermat and Galois probably had no idea that what they were doing would be essential to computer science or cryptography. At the time it was just pure mathematics.

      The contribution that mathematics, and in fact education in general, has made to the modern world is immeasurable, but typically long term and rarely predictable. But given that short term thinking prevails in the world we end up with under-investment in secondary mathematics education (many mathematics teachers now do not have STEM degrees, only A-level mathematics), and that feeds on to a lack of mathematical interest or aptitude when applying to university.

      So why are mathematics departments like Leicester not being grown further? That is because not enough 17year old kids want to study it, and because mathematics research doesn’t pull in enough funding. These are the dominant metrics that a short termist university administrator looks at.

      Both metrics are flawed.

      17 year old kids won’t necessarily choose what to study on the basis of national skills shortages. It might influence them but many other things take priority, and to some extent I agree with their point of view – you have to have a passion for what you are going to do. But then we should expect to have mathematics departments to have few students, and be prepared to support them anyway given the macro level skills shortage. Bear in mind that underwriting student loans costs the UK taxpayer money. Student loans do not fund universities on average, the taxpayer does. Closing or reducing mathematics departments is an unwise investment of the taxpayer’s money.

      As for research, an average experimental scientist is worth more to a university than a good mathematician because an experimentalist brings in overheads for teams of employees. Even an exceptionally good pure mathematician cannot sensibly put in a grant application for millions of pounds because they don’t need teams of people working for them. University administrators we end up loving expensive research just because it is expensive. Leicester could have the next Einstein in their maths department but the VC would probably fire them because they don’t have a group of 10 people under them.

      Then there are the ridiculous NSS and REF metrics. In order to get students to fill in NSS surveys Ipsos/Mori pretty much have to hound them in to filling them in. No private company would trust the feedback from a survey like that. Student opinion is very important, but NSS is not an accurate barometer of it. Plus there are the tricks that some universities play to boost their ratings. Then there is REF. A couple of academics from a panel glance at a paper for a few seconds and then give it a numerical score. Right. Amazing. You wouldn’t decide how to invest your pension with that strategy, but the government decides how to invest lots of taxpayer’s HEFCE money on the basis of it. How foolish.

      After this long rant, let me turn to your remark about how this is the mathematician’s fault for not “negotiating better contracts”. This is little more than an attempt to absolve the politicians and administrators of the responsibility of investing money wisely. Taxpayer’s money largely funds our university system, either through research grants or underwriting student loans. Given that we have macro level mathematics shortages then reducing the size of a maths department at a well known university to only 20-25 faculty is a sign of incredibly poor strategic thinking.

    • Yiftach Says:

      Derek, I think you are missing the point about the academic job market, it is not like most other job markets. Academia is generally very slow, a teaching cycle is one year and research quite often takes years. Training as a research academic takes at least several years. For example, it took me 3 years as an undergraduate student, 2 years as a master student, 5 years as a PhD student and additional 5 years as a postdoc, altogether 15 years. Only then I got my permanent job and it took me another 3 years to pass my probation (this is in the UK, other places have tenure track period). This means that there is very low turnover in academia. Thus, if you lost your job, you have very small chance of finding a new job in a university and there is a good chance that you will never find a job. The salaries are not great so the only economic incentive is job security. If you take this away, you are seriously discouraging people from going into academia.

      If Leicester is not happy with their maths department, that means they screwed up the hiring process or the managing of the department or they might be just wrong in their judgement. The people to pay the price should not be the academics, but the managers. You should not be allowed to press the reset button so easily when the damage to people’s life is huge.

    • victor Says:

      Derek, I believe the question is one of timing. I agree with everything you say, in principle. But these are questions that should be addressed before you hire people, and should affect decisions moving forward.

      At the time of employment, there were implicit (and sometimes explicit) promises made to employees regarding terms of employment, expectations for career advancement, conditions for termination, and so forth. Changing these terms in the middle of someone’s career, after they’ve made irreversible investments of time, energy, and money (in terms of other forgone career opportunities) just isn’t cricket. Which is why I’m surprised there isn’t a lawsuit in the works.

      For the record, I was offered a position at Leicester (not in maths) some years ago, but moved instead to the US. In hindsight, it looks like a great decision.

  10. Petition: save Mathematics at the University of Leicester | Geometry Bulletin Board Says:

    […] The large majority of faculty in the mathematics department at the University of Leicester (in England) are being forced to re-apply for their jobs, on roughly one month’s notice. Of the 21 permanent faculty, 6 will not be re-appointed. (More details are available on Tim Gowers’s blog.) […]

  11. Urgent news from Leicester | Mathematics without Apologies, by Michael Harris Says:

    […] Gowers has once again done the university community a great service by using his blog to publicize the impending decimation of the University of Leicester’s mathematics […]

  12. Ken Brown (Glasgow, VP LMS) Says:

    To add some further info to Tim’s post: a letter was sent to the VC of Leicester on Thursday evening from Simon Tavare, President of the LMS, with copy to the Secretary of the U of Leicester’s Council. The latter was due to meet on Friday afternoon, and I understand the proposals for maths may have been on the agenda. As yet, no word on the outcome.

  13. telescoper Says:

    Reblogged this on In the Dark and commented:
    Here is some extremely worrying news about the Mathematics department at Leicester University. Reducing the number of research faculty to 15 in the way suggested is bound to have an extremely negative effect on morale and send the Department into a downward spiral. The University management must reconsider.

  14. Yemon Choi Says:

    Here is a short news item from the European Mathematical Society where they say:

    In accord with letters from the London Mathematical Society and from leading British research mathematicians, the EMS has urged the vice chancellor at Leicester University to stop the implementation of the plans for staff dismissal and to enter into consultations with the British mathematical community.

  15. The University of Leicester is going to sack its whole maths department (and rehire some of them) | The Aperiodical Says:

    […] some speculation that the reason that maths is going to be hit particularly hard is that it didn’t do […]

  16. The Mathematics Department at Leicester University | Matters Mathematical Says:

    […] https://gowers.wordpress.com/2016/09/15/in-case-you-havent-heard-whats-going-on-in-leicester/ There is a petition you may wish to sign here: […]

  17. Fabien Pazuki Says:

    In a similar vein, some other bad news from the North of Europe. Sad. http://universitypost.dk/article/dean-humanities-lay-staff-again

  18. No cuts, no confidence at University of Leicester | Symptoms Of The Universe Says:

    […] of weeks ago, Peter Coles, whose In The Dark blog I follow, highlighted worrying news about the “down-sizing” of the Maths department at the University of Leicester. Equally worryingly, the Condensed Matter Physics group at Leicester, which has a strong track […]

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