Saturday, 19 March 2011

Arguments Behind PEAK Close-down Suggest University Senior Management Incompetence

The shocking news relayed yesterday indeed seems to be true: Keele University is planning to quash its stellar research and teaching unit in bioethics: PEAK. Besides the support-group on facebook, there is now also a blog supporting PEAK, already featuring several of the support letters sent to the Keele University senior management.

When I heard about this it seemed senseless – and I'm saying this as someone active in university management myself – having also had the unpleasurable task of dealing with rather serious economic difficulties. When you face severe cuts – as several UK universities do at the moment – you just don't elect to save money by crushing one of the few things you have of world-class quality and status. Quite the opposite, you are actually willing to make quite large sacrifices just to be able to keep the few gems you have, so that when better times arrive, you have at least something to build on as a university. Unless, of course, your plan is to join the ranks of polytechnics and such.....

Well, now the VC of Keele University has sent his reply to the flood of emails from across the UK and all over the world on the matter. The very same letter to each one, arriving quite quickly, so we may safely assume he had it in handy for just such a rainy day. In this letter, the reasons for the crushing of PEAK set out in the original "Senate paper" are summarised, followed by the usual assurances customary in these sort of matters when senior management speaks up: everything has been played quite fairly and done by the book. Well...... actually, when reading the Senate paper itself and the instant response of Nafsika Athanassoulis, until recently part of PEAK's staff, one starts to wonder about how clean the hands of senior management really are. At the same time, it is difficult not to sense the reason behind the decision to be about a rather disturbing combination of saving face and covering own tracks. Nafsika's entire letter to the Keele VC is here, and she has been kind enough to allow me to quote some passages.

But first I'd like to comment a bit on the basic economic reason for shutting down PEAK made in the Senate paper. So reads point

In 2010/11 the staff costs are 119.4% of income, projected to fall to 94.6% at the end of the forecast period; the contribution remains negative throughout the forecast period (-29.8%, moving to -1.5%), meaning that the projected costs of PEAK remain consistently in excess of its projected income.
The first of these sentences means that 2010/11, PEAK generated a negative economic result in terms of direct costs and income, income covering 80.6 percentages of staffing costs, but that at the end of the coming period covered by the planning of the university, PEAK would indeed more than carry its own costs, generating a positive result of 5.4 percentages. This, it would seem, is a very positive prognosis! This is what you want to hear from a unit that has happened to get into some economic trouble, isn't it? PEAK is on the right track!! In particular, this is how you think about a high-quality research unit. The rest of the passage (as far as I have been able to understand from asking around) is about what total costs, including so-called indirect ones – i.e. how much central university administration (incl. such things as the VC salary) has to rely on PEAK to cover its costs; this is the "contribution" spoken about. Now, what sort of "contribution" of this sort is expected from a unit in terms of percentage is mainly determined by the size of this unit – the larger the unit, the lower the expectation (this since larger units need to contribute lower percentages in order to contribute the same amount of actual money). That is, this problem could be easily fixed simply by expanding PEAK, or by having the entire PEAK be absorbed by a larger unit (expected contribution thus being calculated on the basis of the size of this larger unit, which by absorbing PEAK will attain a lower contribution percentage). In fact, axing PEAK would seem to imply that the rest of the units at Keele University will have to take on larger contribution expectations in terms of percentages. However, aside from such technicalities, one may again observe that the projected trend when it comes to PEAK's contribution is positive: PEAK is on the mend also when it comes to covering its indirect costs. Again, this is good news from a unit housing the qualities that PEAK does.

Now, it should be said that there appears to be reasons to doubt the figures given in the first place. Here's a quote from Nafsika Athanassoulis' letter to the Keele VC (you can look up the points commented on in the Senate paper) that throws some light on the ability of university senior management to have the books kept properly:
During my time at Keele PEAK’s budget was absorbed by Law and it became impossible for anyone to figure out the real numbers relating to either unit. Given the diverse nature of the activities of the two units it became very difficult to properly account for income generated in any way that would clarify who contributed what to where. To give you an example, as Director of the MA in the Ethics of Palliative Care I alerted Professor Thomson to the fact that figures for student income were persistently misrepresented in the budget because the course started in January rather than September, but the figures were never corrected. Even in the academic year where the course changed from a January to a September start and managed to recruit double its usual number of students (a remarkable feat under the circumstances) the figures simply did not reflect this fact, nor were they adjusted despite my numerous attempts to make the errors knows.
So with regard to the economic reason given for crushing PEAK, there seems to be two problems. First, do the negative figures really represent economic reality, or are they rather a result of sloppy work of the central university book keeping administration? Second, if the figures are indeed sound, they seem to indicate that PEAK's economy is in fact on a positive track, and that there are simple organisational measures that could speed up that process with regard to the "contribution".

It is at this step in the analysis that we come the next critical point made in the Senate paper. For it seems that Keele University senior management – contrary to the joined voices of leading applied ethics researchers in the UK and globally – thinks that PEAK is in fact a rather poor research unit. Point portrays PEAK as underperforming research wise (research performance in the UK being measured through a so-called RAE). If that was true, the positive economic trend would indeed be a much weaker argument for keeping PEAK. However, as one would expect against the background of the praise by actual experts in PEAK's field, the basis of this claim appears to be the direct result not of PEAK activities, but of serious misjudgments by senior university management. Nafsika Athanassoulis writes: was the University’s higher management decision not to submit most PEAK staff for RAE review on the grounds of ‘lack of fit with the University’s identified research units’. Of all the irrational decisions affecting PEAK this was perhaps the worst, robbing the University of an almost certain source of income for no good reason. Again PEAK tried to reason with this decision at the time and had little or no response from those in charge.
Simply put, PEAK appears to be underperforming, since its stellar performance has not been submitted to the process measuring performance (i.e. RAE review). And this for what looks very much as a bona fide bogus reason cooked up by senior university management. You may all check Nafsika's claims about PEAK's possible contribution by inspecting the PEAK staff publications and performance lists at the homepage.

Nafsika make several other points as well, which you can enjoy together with several other voices supporting PEAK at the blog mentioned at the outset. However, this is quite sufficient for me. The main reason for closing down PEAK is the claim that its research is not worth having and that this is supported by the RAE review of Keele University. The latter, it now turns out, didn't even include the research performance of PEAK staff – and this as a direct result of senior university management not letting PEAK research output become available to the RAE reviewers. In effect, it would seem that the same RAE with regard to PEAK measures nothing, besides the lack of judgment of senior university management. If actual research output of PEAK staff is considered, however, another picture appears – as one would expect in view of the strong support of PEAK from leading applied ethics researchers and units all over the UK and the world. And if that picture of PEAK's actual research quality is considered, the economic reasons put forward in the Senate paper in fact speak in favor of keeping PEAK, or even expanding it!

I'm sure that this affair will reveal several more interesting details in due course. So far, however, the plan to close down PEAK seems mainly to be based on a combination of lack of good judgment, lack of analysis and – in effect – lack of competence on the part of University senior management.