Response

Results of a questionnaire about concerns regarding Project SHAPE Phase 2

BACKGROUND
Project SHAPE is a restructure project in the Faculty of Health and Life Sciences at the University of Liverpool. Phase 2 of the project commenced in late January 2021, with an announcement that up to 47 Academic ‘Teaching & Research’ staff were at risk of redundancy. Following some consultations with the UCU, a set of revised redundancy criteria were released on 5 May and it was stated that 32 staff remained at risk. The UCU remains in dispute and strike action is imminent. At this juncture it seemed important to investigate the specifics of concerns that university members had, and whether the revised criteria – or any other communications from senior leaders – had successfully allayed concerns. The survey was created by staff with the intention of informing both senior University leaders and the UCU. It was run anonymously using Google Forms and can be viewed at http://bit.ly/concernssurvey

NARRATIVE SUMMARY
Twenty-two potential issues were available to express concern about. Overwhelmingly, all the issues were seen as “somewhat” or “very” concerning: between 90 and 99% of respondents chose one of these two responses (Fig. A1, section A below). No issue exhibited low levels of concern (the maximum value of the “not concerned” response was 3%; Fig. A1). The issues are listed in Figure A1. This report will not single out particular issues of greater or less concern because the response profile was so uniform. It is worth noting that the issues cover a wide range of categories to do with organisational strategy, the context that led to the redundancy proposals, and the potential fallout afterwards.

These issues are much wider ranging than the campaign points raised by the UCU in its public statements (though they may have been raised in the confidential consultation meetings). Five of the issues directly related to the redundancy selection criteria; clearly, not all of the 22 issues could be fixed by amending the redundancy criteria alone.
Only 6% of respondents felt their concerns had been allayed (at least partially) by communications from senior leaders (Fig. A2). This may be unsurprising when comparing the subject matter of the concerns to the subject matter of official Project SHAPE statements and emails – there may simply be limited overlap. We hope this survey will help leaders to see more specifically what matters to university members.

Most respondents have not conveyed their concerns directly to leaders, as evidenced by the fact that < 10% have emailed Prof. Kenny, and < 25% have emailed any management staff (Fig. B1, B3, section B below). This relatively low level of communication upwards might mean that leaders have not had access to some of the information that might have influenced their decision-making. Having said this, some respondents may have chosen to express their views in jointly authored open letters, believing this mode to be equally or more effective. Communications from leaders to university members have not been as thorough or effective as some people may expect.

The most striking statistic is that 62% of respondents say that communications from senior leaders have tended to make their concerns worse (Fig. A2). Of the (small) subset of respondents who did email senior leaders, 75% did not get a reply from Prof Kenny, and 44% did not get a reply from other leaders (Fig. B2, B4). This low response rate is surprising, as Prof. Kenny openly invited university members to contact her as the head of Project SHAPE, and as Institute Executive Deans were also important, well-informed points of contact. Ideally, staff and managers should find more fruitful modes of communication, in both directions, but this can be difficult in a situation where trust has already been eroded.

In fact, it does appear that trust in leadership is low: e.g., 97% of staff feel misled, and 98% fear future redundancies in spite of assurances to the contrary (percentages summing “somewhat concerned” and “very concerned”). Similarly, there seems to be little faith that Project SHAPE phase 2 will improve the University environment overall: many staff also fear that the redundancies will not achieve their stated goals (94%), will erode undergraduate education (97%) and that the long-term sustainability of the University has been put at risk (96%). Though leaders may feel that they do, in fact, have strategies to address these important issues, they clearly have not been conveyed to staff in a believable and reassuring manner.

Overall, there was high interest in this survey, with > 200 responses within the 5-day window. Most respondents were academic staff in the Faculty of Health and Life Sciences. For more about the respondents see section C below. The survey could be left open for longer and more participation encouraged. However, while it would be interesting to see whether levels of concern remain as high and unanimous with wider participation, no-one could claim that the views of these 213 people are irrelevant to the Faculty.

A: OVERALL PICTURE OF PERSISTENT AND WIDE-RANGING CONCERNS
Figure A1: Distribution of concerns expressed as percentages of respondents who answered (between 210 and 213 responses to each question)

Figure A2

B: RESPONDENTS’ COMMUNICATION WITH SENIOR LEADERS
Figure B1

Figure B2

Figure B3

C: CATEGORIES OF RESPONDENT

Over 95% of respondents belonged to the Health and Life Sciences Faculty, and over 70% were Academic staff with a contract duration 3 years or longer. Other categories were too small to merit any breakdown of results. We note that academic staff within FHLS would likely be the most well-informed people in this context, and the category of staff with whom it should be easiest for senior leaders to engage.

Figure C1

We have at least 20 responses from each of the four institutes in FHLS, but noticeably greater participation from the
Institute of Population Health (Fig. C1). We would like to leave the survey open for longer and increase participation and representation across the institutes of FHLS. We believe this would be boosted if Heads of Department agreed to circulate the survey link.

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Reponse to a press relsease on 8th March 2021 by Professor Louise Kenny

On 8th March 2021, Professor Louise Kenny, Executive Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the Faculty of Health and Life Sciences (FHLS) at the University of Liverpool, issued a statement about the criteria that were used to select 47 scientists on teaching and research contracts in FHLS for redundancy.

This statement appears to contain misleading and inaccurate information. Given the seriousness of the matter, and to ensure that members of the UK’s academic community, journalists, politicians and the general public have correct information regarding the University’s proposed redundancy plans, some problematic elements of this statement are highlighted below.

1. The University “strongly refutes” the claim that the selection criteria used to select staff for redundancy were in breach of the San Francisco Declaration of Research Assessment (DORA), to which the University is a signatory.

The University has not given reasons why it strongly refutes this claim. The criteria the University used for selecting staff for redundancy were grant income and the Field-Weighted Citation Index (FWCI). As indicated in an Open Letter sent to DORA which was signed by more than 200 members of University staff, the use of these criteria were in breach of DORA because (i) a publication metric was used to assess research performance; (ii) there was no evidence that any qualitative assessment had been undertaken; (iii) no member of staff had at any time been informed of the metrics used to assess them, nor of how they were applied; (iv) staff were not given the opportunity to test and verify the results of the assessment.

2. The statement says that the criteria the University adopted to select staff for redundancy were “fair” and “reasonable”.

The sole reliance on grant income and FWCI as criteria to select staff for redundancy was neither fair nor reasonable. As clearly stated by the UK Forum for Responsible Research Metrics, metrics should “support, but not supplant, qualitative, expert assessment”.

It was, therefore, inappropriate that these two metrics alone were used to assess staff. A qualitative, expert review of staff is undertaken as part of a yearly process called the ‘Professional Development Review (PDR)’. These PDRs, which review contributions to research, teaching and administration, were not considered when staff were being selected for redundancy. In many cases, those selected were advised in their last PDR to consider applying for promotion. This highlights that the selection process for redundancy overlooked significant contributions to research, teaching and administration, making the process unreasonable and unfair.

3. The statement says the criteria used to select staff for redundancy “take account of the many different ways in which individuals contribute in their roles.”

It is noteworthy that no specific details of the “many different ways” that were used to assess staff are mentioned. What were they? In the interests of transparency, the University needs to disclose what these were. Given that all of the individuals under threat are on Teaching and Research contracts, one might have expected that contributions to teaching would have been considered, but it appears this was not the case.

4. The statement says “The University’s own, transparent guidelines on the responsible use of metrics, reflecting the aspirations of DORA, can be found here” (linking to this webpage)

The University did not follow its own guidelines. The University’s policy on the responsible use of metrics, which is available here, indicates the following:

  • quantitative evaluation “should not supplant qualitative, expert assessment”.  There is no evidence that any qualitative assessment was performed.
  • “those being evaluated should be fully aware of how metrics will be used in their evaluation”. Firstly, staff were unaware that any evaluation of their performance was undertaken. Secondly, none of the metrics used were made known to staff prior to any assessments being undertaken. Thirdly, there was no prior agreement of the criteria used with staff.

5. The statement says “We used a measure of research income over a five-year period to identify colleagues who may potentially be placed at risk of redundancy”.

The lack of transparency in this statement is unacceptable. What constitutes research income? How was research income measured? Where did the information come from? Did research income include funds obtained from charities, from industrial or overseas contracts, from consultancies, from the fees of international PhD and other postgraduate students? If not, why not?

6. The statement says that a range of mitigation factors were used to remove the threat of redundancy, one of these factors being “leadership contribution”.  

What leadership contributions does the University value? Is leadership narrowly defined only as leadership within the University or does it include external professional roles either paid or unpaid? It seems that leadership contributions made by members of the Faculty’s Athena Swan (AS) Committee are not at all valued, with several AS leads being under threat of redundancy. One such member implemented a career coaching scheme for early career researchers and professional services staff in one of the Institutes within the Faculty. This was so successful that it is now run as a University-wide scheme. Of note, in the Faculty’s application for an AS Silver Award, submitted November 2020, Professor Kenny singled this out for special mention, saying:

“I am particularly proud of the pioneering work performed by AS teams in this Faculty, for example: pioneering career coaching, piloted on early career researchers and professional service staff, and now to be rolled out university-wide.”

In light if this, it is difficult to understand how just two months later, this AS leader received a letter threatening them with compulsory redundancy.

7. The University “strongly refutes” any allegations of discrimination. The statement says mitigation criteria included those with caring responsibilities, maternity, paternity and adoption leave, and long-term sickness absence, and says that consideration was given to activity pre and post pandemic.

It is disappointing that the University appears to have overlooked the difficulties of working through the pandemic, especially for those staff who have been impacted by caring responsibilities, parental leave, long term sickness. The reference to ‘post pandemic’ is curious given that the pandemic is still ongoing.

A letter outlining the negative impact of the proposed redundancies on equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) is available here. The letter states:

As it stands, the chosen metrics create significant inequalities amongst staff. They lack any acknowledgment of teaching, mentoring, and other key administrative roles, including equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) efforts. Their use disregards the fact that the majority of the work to improve EDI (e.g., to decolonise the curriculum, to lead on anti-racism efforts, to obtain funding for EDI posts around antiracism, to mentor and coach early career colleagues, to widen participation, and to make the university a champion of community) is built on gendered and non-white labour.”

8. The statement concludes with the following: “These are extremely difficult decisions, but ones we need to make in order for our faculty to prosper and realise its potential to significantly improve the health and wellbeing of Liverpool’s residents.”

Can the University provide some evidence to show that the health of a cities’ residents can be improved by restructuring a university faculty? Are staff made redundant not residents of Liverpool or do they not matter?

This claim appears to be out of kilter with the opinion of most public health experts, where the consensus view is that poor health has more to do with poverty than with what is happening in the faculty of a local university. This point was well made by a 3rd year PhD student who wrote to Professor Kenny to express her concerns about how the loss of her PhD supervisor would impact on her studies:

“I find it quite insulting that ‘tackling the extreme health inequalities and unmet health needs in the Liverpool city region’ keeps being used as justification for the deplorable action of making 47 members of valued staff redundant. The major sources of health inequalities in Liverpool are poverty, education and housing, how can restructuring HLS possibly impact these issues?”

The student’s eloquent letter and the irrelevant corporate response that she received can be viewed here under comment #4: https://www.hls47.co.uk/comments-from-our-students/