Imperial College Department of Life Sciences Restructuring

Monday, December 13th, 2010. 2:36am

Imperial College London Biochemistry Department

Imperial College London, Biochemistry Department (Photo: Jo Anslow)

The Imperial College department where I did my undergraduate degree (in Biochemistry) is reportedly set to see seventeen senior academics made redundant as part of a restructuring.

The public document describing the plans is “Paper G” from the minutes of the Imperial College Council on the 9th of July 2010. Despite Professor Dallman, Principal of the Faculty of Natural Sciences, saying that as this was a major restructuring it was likely to excite national interest (Page 14, Minute 47) the results of now completed two-month consultation announced in July have not, as far as I can see, been openly published, though details have been leaked to Imperial College’s excellent student media (Felix, Live!) which has reported extensively on what staff have been told (and what students haven’t been told). It appears that consultation may have been only with the department’s staff and wider views were not sought.

Presumably there is some kind of report summarising the results of the consultation, and perhaps a document containing the plans as revised in light of it. I have submitted a freedom of information request, in public, to ask them to be released; as I have used any response will be automatically posted online.

I generally agree with the department’s statement that research excellence ought be the top priority. The high quality and relevance of the undergraduate teaching derives directly from the fact there is cutting edge research being carried out within the department.

The department has said the purpose of the restructure to focus on research excellence as well as secure the department’s long-term financial position. The proposals involve cutting two sections: Plant and Microbial Sciences (PMS) and Cell Biology and Functional Genomics (CBFG) and creating a new one: “Integrative Cell Biology”. The department claims the two “sections” to be eliminated are “substantially below the other cost centres in terms of both the academic impact of the research output and the level of external funding secured”.

One of the notable elements of the proposals is that those who are to be made redundant include all of those with major roles in the administration and organisation of the undergraduate courses in the department; the Directors of Studies, Senior Tutors and Admissions Tutors.

A number of these individuals held these key teaching posts a decade ago when I was a student. I think one of the key questions raised is why these responsibilities have not been rotated among more individuals. I would also question if it is just coincidence that all these individuals are working in two of the department’s sections. Is it that the subjects taught, particularly in the first two years, are more closely related to those areas than others and the course as a whole has not been updated to reflect the breadth of department’s research activity? Questions such as what kind of first and second year courses can those working in areas like virology usefully teach presumably need to be considered. Surely it is indicative of a deeper problem, a mismatch between teaching and research activity, that the relatively small number staff to be made redundant are, according to Imperial College Union, responsible for a quarter of the department’s teaching.

I think it is very important that all academics are rotated through the academic administrative roles, both to give time to develop their research and to prevent individuals who particularly enjoy being in positions of power over students having undue influence.

The department has made comments and commitments about teaching:

The Department also considered the teaching and administrative activities of each cost centre. In this respect the Department noted that both Plant and Microbial Sciences (PMS) and Cell Biology and Functional Genomics (CBFG) were engaged in a wide range of teaching and training activities and contributed substantially to the administration of these activities. However, having considered the overall relationship between research activity and teaching and administrative activity, the Department considered that the teaching and administrative activities of these two centres did not satisfactorily counter-balanance their relatively low research competitiveness. The Department is nonetheless aware that, should the proposal proceed, it could have impacts on some aspects of teaching and training. The Department would therefore take any such impacts on teaching and training into full account when making decisions and would make every effort to mitigate the impact of any proposed changes on its students. The Department would also delay the implementation of any proposed changes in order to facilitate this mitigation process, to again minimise any impact on teaching and training. This approach is consistent with the Department’s wider initiative to improve the link between research activities and teaching and training.

Source P.72 Imperial College Council papers 9th July 2010 (Providing information in as an image in a PDF doesn’t deter me from quoting it!).

Obvious questions arising from this include: What are the Department’s plans to mitigate the effect of these changes on teaching? Are they complete, and if not will the changes (redundancies) be delayed, as promised, until they are in place?

There are questions being asked as to if the department’s assessment that the sections to be eliminated were in fact performing more poorly academically than the others. As pointed out in a letter from Professor John Mansfield citations comparisons have not taking into account the average number of citations per paper in particular fields. Citation rates vary dramatically between research areas.

A number of other important points are included in an excellent paper from Imperial College Union to Imperial’s Senate on Wednesday the 15th of December, including:

  • The college’s actions risk deterring academics from taking up extra teaching relating roles (this risks damaging the quality of the undergraduate degree, one of the department’s key outputs is trained individuals).
  • The negative effect on postgraduate students, exacerbated by the rapid proposed timeline for the change, will be significant.
  • Imperial College seemingly withdrawing from plant sciences despite the importance to the nation of food security issues.

I think the restructure needs to be taken more slowly with greater regard to teaching. The training offered by the department needs to be continuously adapted to reflect the research being carried out. Restructuring teaching ought to have been an explicit part of the plan, and timetable, from the beginning. I think Imperial College Union is right to be calling for a Departmental Teaching Review before going any further.

I was the elected Biochemistry Department Student Representative for 1999-2000

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