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.

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

]]>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.

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. ]]>

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.

]]>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.

]]>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.

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

]]>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.

]]>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.

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