Vice-chancellors redeemed?

Dr Muriel E Swijghuisen Reigersberg is a researcher development manager (strategy) at The University of Sydney, Australia, and previously worked at Goldsmiths, University of London, UK.  At Sydney, she oversees the development of a University-wide researcher development training program in collaboration with researchers, faculty staff and professional service units.

In her spare time, Muriel maintains an academic profile in applied and medical ethnomusicology, regularly presenting at academic conferences, penning academic texts, peer reviewing and blogging. She has also offered consultancy support to specialist research institutes in arts and humanities in Slovenia and Japan. Muriel is a keen supporter of the responsible sharing of academic knowledge.

 She is on Twitter as @murielSR. Her ORCID is 0000-0003-2337-7962.

Arc (Photo by Andreas Levers - Shared via CC 2.0
Arc (Photo by Andreas Levers – Shared via CC 2.0

This article is a response to Tseen Khoo’s great post Nowhere to hide (29th August) where she wonders whether vice-chancellors are capable of understanding the current struggles and working conditions early career researchers face in today’s modern university.

I’ll unpack some of the issues Tseen raises, using my third-space hat: the research manager/ researcher hat.

First, I should say that perhaps I am lucky. Not all vice-chancellors are the same and my encounters with senior staff, including the odd vice-chancellor every now and again, have been strikingly positive. I say ‘strikingly’ because when I was a junior administrator and early career researcher, I never had access to the upper echelons of the university.

Now that I do more regularly, and have had some conversations with senior colleagues, I have come to understand that issues such as fixed-term contractual arrangements; metrics; the ‘enforced’ mobility questions and definitions of what an early career researcher is (in terms of age, etc.) are rather more complex than I’d first imagined.

So this article is as much about my personal learning as it is about the lamentable state of affairs.

The ‘easier’ challenge to address is the question of definitions of what an early career researcher is, in terms of age. When I was working on grant submissions, I noted that funding bodies defined ‘early career researcher’ in a variety of ways. Some said up to 3 years postdoc, some 5 years and nowadays some funders go as far as 10 years post-PhD while others also include PhD students, or cut off your early career researcher status when you become Associate Professor in their definitions. It is all a bit bamboozling and a real nightmare when it comes to eligibility checking, the pitching of researcher development events, and resourcing. Many funders have changed their definitions as well, in response to the economic and employability downturn post-2008, so I have some sympathy for the vice-chancellors who think all early career researchers are ‘young’. They are not entirely wrong and ‘young’ is a relative term, after all, particularly in the academy.

Now, fixed term contracts. Diabolical and stressful. I agree. I do believe, unlike a respondent to Tseen’s article, that vice-chancellors are not necessarily to blame. There are external factors that impact on a vice-chancellor’s ability to allocate resources to salaries and employment stability, as well as internal university challenges. Universities do many things and teaching and infrastructure budgets compete with research budgets for a hearing during the annual budget rounds. Research Council grants income is never a profit-making income stream, so arguing for additional long-term investment in research salaries and activity is hard to do when labs need to be built and students need to be supported. Increased investment usually also comes at a price: the necessity of metrics and performance indicators to justify local and public expenditure. More on metrics later.

Fixed-term contracts are also very much the result of the ways in which research is funded at a national level and the saturation of the job market in higher education. In the UK for instance, the Haldane Principle and dual support system mean that universities have access to quality related research income via the Higher Education Funding for England (HEFCE) which supports research salaries and activities. This income stream is complemented by competitive research income and industry income, which is where fixed-term postdoc contracts feature most heavily. However, the number of PhD qualified colleagues far outstrips positions available by both streams combined, and there is still a significant stigma attached to leaving the academy. Colleagues who live in countries where research is funded through competitive grants alone may also find that employment stability is more fragile. This, I think again, is not something vice-chancellors can remedy individually and, after all, an educated work force is desirable nationally. The question that should be asked is: should all PhD- qualified staff remain in higher education or instead put their skills to use elsewhere?

What perhaps vice-chancellors can do, is to be openly supportive of colleagues who wish to leave higher education, allocate resources to facilitating this, and for academic culture to adapt accordingly. Like Tseen, I think the ‘deficit model’ must be done away with. Swiftly and by the academy at large. Additionally, I think aspiring academics should be suitably informed at a very early stage what a career in the academy looks like, so that they enter it from an informed position. The responsibility for providing that detail is shared and could lie with Careers Services, supervisors and mentors, with vice-chancellors offering their blessings and resources for this type of engagement.

Now, for that tricky topic: metrics and performance indicators.

My remaining 250 words are insufficient to address the complexity of the metrics debate. The variety of metrics available also increases what seems like daily. Thankfully, in the UK, they have helped me by compiling The Metric Tide, an independent, national UK review of why citation metrics in particular are not a robust way of assessing and administering research excellence (whatever ‘excellence’ might look like or mean). The Higher Education Funding Council for England, UK has also created a Responsible Metrics Forum to explore which metrics might be used in research assessment, if not bibliometrics.

This UK response, in part, is due to the fact that in the UK research assessment tied up with the aforementioned quality related research income through the Research Excellence Framework (REF). The Research Excellence Framework is a hugely time consuming and competitive exercise, precisely because money is attached. In Australia, they have opted for a process that is less time-intensive, Excellence in Research for Australia (ERA). ERA relies heavily on bibliometrics and citation indices. Quality related income is not allocated in the same way as it is in the UK. While less onerous to administer, ERA arguably is also less accurate in identifying research excellence. What these types of measuring activities have in common, though, is that they are increasingly used to help ‘inform’ various league tables, (internal and external) funding allocations and resources out there, (inter)nationally.

As Tseen points out, research is a global market. Researcher mobility and competition mean that league tables are seen as necessary to attract talented staff, students and so on. Some colleagues also do rather well by these tables, thanks very much. Consequently, some see no problem in playing citation games and hiring and firing according to h-indices. Neither do I think it realistic to believe that metrics will disappear in this global research market.  Numbers of a different kind to citation indices might still tell us something. What this might be exactly remains to be determined by senior colleagues.

Many vice-chancellors are all too aware of these tensions. Unless our senior leaders at multiple levels stage a joint ‘revolution’ with their peers and are willing to risk losing successful staff to institutions that do play the citation game, though, not much will change. Change in culture and transparency is needed, however, and what this change might look like will be determined by (inter) national and local drivers.

Senior colleagues in positions of leadership can assist and foster change in determining these drivers. They will need to do this together not just locally but (inter) nationally, supporting transparent environments where institutions clearly state how and which metrics are used to report on research-related university activity such as recruitment and retention through regular communication, institutional statements, or by supporting initiatives like the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA) through action. This would support the career development of many researchers, including early career researchers. As I hope I have shown, too, supporting early career researchers and researcher development must be a joint endeavor for which everyone must take responsibility.

Meanwhile, I hope at least some vice-chancellors will help me with my ‘revolution’.


  1. Hi Muriel.

    I’m a big fan, but I can’t agree with your underlying argument here.

    As I understand it, you are saying that the issues are complex, and that vice-chancellors need to work in concert at a national and international level to fix them.

    The implication is that universities can do little at an institutional level to ameliorate these issues.

    The consequence of that line of argument is that trends within the university sector are effectively unstoppable. The issues represented by Tseen’s article and your response include:

    • ‘Old’ versus ‘young’: That is, an aging cohort of securely-employed staff who, as they retire, are being replaced by a growing cohort of staff who are being paid by the hour.
    • As a consequence, securely-employed staff (especially managers) are becoming increasingly distanced from the experiences of a majority of their staff.
    • Fixed term contracts, the insecurity of these employment arrangements and their effects on life outside of work.
    • The resultant ‘mobility’ that forces staff, particularly postdocs to roam the world in search of secure work.
    • The growing emphasis on metrics, and the attendant surveillance of staff activity.
    • The consequent emphasis on league tables of universities (and journals), and the way that staff are being told to only work with those who are higher up the table.

    I cannot accept that we are powerless in the face of these trends. I will not accept that vision of the future for our universities. There are absolutely things that universities can do to tackle these issues.

    Let’s look at fixed-term contracts for research-only staff. The usual argument for this is that the underlying funding is not assured (‘soft money’), because it is coming from research grants. Thus the university will only guarantee funding until the end of the research grant. Most of these staff sit within research centres. Because research centres often have no recurrent funding, the whole centre is insecure.

    Let’s say that your research centre has been operating for five years, and that the lowest level of funding that you have ever had is $250,000. Why won’t the university provide you with $250,000 of recurrent funds, on the basis of past performance? Past performance is, after all, the best predictor of future performance. That would help many centre directors to give their staff much more security.

    If your centre has a funding gap coming up, why won’t the university provide bridging finance? That is, if you have a grant finishing in December, and another grant starting in February, why do you have to disband your team for January? The new grant is guaranteed income (or as close as you can get these days). Why impose dislocation and hardship, or force a lab manager to paper over the cracks by redirecting funds from another project? Instead, why not have a clear system that provides bridging finance in a situation like this?

    The main argument in favour of adjustments like these is that they are the right thing to do. They provide insecure staff with greater certainty and security in their work. This will improve their morale at work, and will have beneficial effects outside of work, too.

    However, if you need an economic rationalist argument for small improvements like these, then think about it this way. Those international league tables that are so influential on student choice (particularly international student choice) are, to a large extent, driven by research results. That makes your research staff even more valuable to the university. Instead of risking that you will lose those staff, why not keep them happy. Given that the league tables are a marketing issue, use some of your university marketing budget to implement the changes.

    Small changes like these at individual universities will not change the system overall. However, they will promote a culture that is better than what we have now. We need that.

    You believe that no one university should take the lead, and that universities should act in concert, nationally or internationally. The problem with this statement is that universities have been working in concert for a long time, and they have, by and large, promoted the situation that we have at the moment.

    In Australia, the peak university body is Universities Australia. This group used to be called the Australian Vice-Chancellors’ Committee. This group has been instrumental in dismantling many of the workplace protections that used to protect staff against insecurity. One example is the conversion of staff to secure employment after an uninterrupted period (three years, for example) of contract work. It is my understanding that the vice-chancellors, through their peak body, argued strongly that they should not be bound by this requirement. Where possible, they have sought to eliminate it from work conditions at their universities.

    I do agree with you that revolutionary change is required. However, I do not think that the revolution will be led by above. I think that it is far more likely that it will be led by people like you – middle or low-level managers – implementing changes at their own level, and fighting to convince people above them of the value of those changes.

    I don’t know what your role is, but your title makes it sound like you are the ideal person to be openly supportive of colleagues who wish to leave higher education, to argue that the university should allocate resources to facilitate this, and for academic culture to adapt accordingly.

    I can pretty much guarantee you that your vice-chancellor will never lead the charge on this, or any other staff-positive change in the university. Nor will they work with their colleagues to put in place the national and international standards and legislation required to do this. As reasonable and smart as they are, their hands are tied.

    It is up to people like you (and me) to untie their hands.


  2. Hi Jonathan! Thanks for your kind reply and thought-provoking response to the blog. I certainly agree with you that ‘revolution’ does have to happen from all parts of a University and this is what I mean when I write: “As I hope I have shown, too, supporting early career researchers and researcher development must be a joint endeavor for which everyone must take responsibility.”

    What we do though, will be determined by our roles within an organisation and what ‘power’ we have. For example: I cannot influence other VCs in the G08. My own VC will need to do this. What I CAN do (or someone in a similar position) is talk my VC or other senior colleagues about these issues, sharing with them the concerns I have and those I hear and encourage them to engage with their peers to help bring about change. That is in fact, exactly what I have done, and I am pleased to say that my post here has the 100% support of my senior colleagues. There has even been talk of a Responsible Metrics statement for consideration.

    This however, will require some ‘socialising’ and discussion via our various committees, so all in good time. I may want a revolution, but others might be more cautious. Another part of my learning has been that change management and advocacy take time, a lot of listening and a lot of thinking. It is a massive culture change that needs to occur, so incremental progress will be more productive than outright anarchy.

    As with the Metric Tide, I believe everyone has a responsibility to engage in this type of advocacy, which is why I referenced the document. The ‘blogging format’ does not allow for extensive discussions. A monograph would be better there.

    I think too, that the division between admin/ management and VCs/ senior staff can be a little artificial and fueled by articles as the one we recently saw in The Spectator. Many of us, myself included, are also researchers or have recently been post docs or have had/ have a career in HEI research. Some of us in fact have left because of the appalling conditions so they well understand them, but want to help improve things by joining the admin side (aka ‘the dark side’).

    In fact many senior colleagues leading higher ed institutions are still academics. Many of us are aware of the challenges and the stress involved. We are trying hard though, to advocate for change through small changes at a local or even institutional level to help make things work. Often a very uncomfortable position to be in, as well, precisely because of those binaries and ‘bad press’.

    In terms of resourcing, again, some institutions can allocate money more easily than others. But, if they provide it to 1 group/ person why not another and what does this mean in terms of equity and transparency? Similarly, some organisations are small and simply haven’t $25k to spare or allocate to 1 person/ initiative. Many colleagues VCs I know would gladly give away all the money they had to research initiatives if they could, but the fact is: resources are finite; everyone deserves a ‘fare go’ at applying for it and decisions need to be made in a way that is equitable and transparent. So, for example, I’d argue my ‘corner’ to get more funds for research but my colleague working with students wants more money for student support. I would support both of these if I could, but my job is to advocate for research, so I do and I ‘lead’ in that area.

    As you say, we should all do our bit and this is exactly what I aim to continue doing, in a way that befits my role and current job title! Join me?


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