'The metrics are clearly weaponised against psychology'

Luna Centifanti, Andrea Flood, Beth Greenhill and Laura Golding on recent events at the University of Liverpool, and what they mean for Psychology.

21 June 2021

We write as academic and practitioner psychologists at the University of Liverpool, where we have just finished three weeks of strike action against compulsory redundancies. This is one of the biggest strikes against a single employer in the region in recent years. We are now set to escalate this to a full marking and assessment boycott that will halt University course validation and awards.

The sudden impact on psychology staff and students is unprecedented. Many staff are now effectively ‘locked out’ of the University, which has decided to withhold 100 per cent of pay for participants in the marking boycott. Many undergraduates are also angry about the University removing or reducing quality assurance processes in assessment, in an attempt to mitigate the marking and assessment boycott, for example by removing the need for external examiners, for second-marking or moderation and for awarding degrees based on partial results. Clinical psychology post-graduates are at risk of delays to their professional qualification. 

Nationally, the importance of the work of clinical psychologists has been noted in the NHS Five Year Forward View for Mental Health (NHSE, 2016), which highlights the need for many more clinical psychologists in the NHS to deliver greater access to psychological healthcare. As the profound impacts of Covid-19 become increasingly apparent, and with evidence that the pandemic has widened existing inequalities in both physical and psychological health (e.g., DCP Racial and Social Inequalities in the Times of Covid-19 Working Group, 2020), the pressure on psychological services has intensified. Clinical psychologists have been identified on the Shortage Occupation List from the Migration Advisory Committee. Prior to the pandemic, mental health problems account for 11-­27 per cent of the causes of disability across Europe (ROAMER, 2007-2013) such that research priorities are paramount to address the needs of underrepresented groups who experience marginalisation, to have a focus on stigma and discrimination, to understand what interventions work, and to understand prevention and resilience factors. Good researchers make a vital contribution to clinical psychology training and engage in wide-ranging research that informs both the psychological evidence base and policy making. With an NHS in crisis, and an exhausted workforce, NHS services desperately need more clinical psychologists to support other staff and respond to the growing, urgent need for mental health support. 

Against the backdrop of the pandemic, in January 2021, senior managers at the University of Liverpool announced their intention to make 47 of our Faculty of Health and Life Sciences staff redundant including a number of academic psychology staff and a member of the university’s Doctorate in Clinical Psychology programme. Academic staff on Teaching and Research (T&R) contracts were unknowingly ranked using vague assessment criteria developed by the University of Liverpool. These decisions are described by the university’s senior managers as enabling the Faculty to establish a stronger connection between its research capabilities and performance, and the teaching provided to students by its academic staff. It is explained as being part of an 18 month Faculty wide restructure called Project Shape. The original criteria were in clear breach of the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA) – a declaration for which the University of Liverpool is a signatory. The BMJ and Nature News have both written about the faulty criteria of this 'rank and yank' exercise that is the first case in Europe in Higher Education (https://www.hls47.co.uk/in-the-news/). The ranking took place outside of the routine processes associated with performance review and competency development within the University.

Following pressure from University College Union and the outrage by scientists as well as strongly worded letters by DORA, the University introduced revised criteria, dropping citation metrics and grant income based on the Research Exercise Framework. Yet influential psychologists such as Professor Dorothy Bishop (FRS) and others warned that the reliance on grant-income metrics (see Professor Bishop’s talk and tweet as well as a thread of the webinar) such as these will demoralise staff because of the arbitrary nature of grant success, and will result in dysfunctional research practices and a disregarding of other important Academic roles (see here for the full ‘Against The Metric Tide’ webinar).

The University of Liverpool persisted by replacing Unit of Assessment (UoA) REF categories with grant income benchmarks based on Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) cost centre codes. Although the number in scope dropped to 32 colleagues, since the university added qualitative assessments (see here for information regarding the lack of a rounded assessment), all of the psychology academics from the original 47 remain at risk. There were major problems with the revision. Based on these codes, which solely dictate how finance departments operate in the university, staff on T&R contracts were ranked and anyone falling under a mean level of grant income for their cost centre was classed as underperforming. Clinical psychology was assigned to the Clinical Medicine cost centre (rather than, say, Psychology & Behavioural Sciences); the mean grant income expected for Clinical Medicine is five times larger than that for Psychology & Behavioural Sciences. Arguably, clinical medicine may be more costly and require greater grant funds, due to the equipment to run those experiments. In clinical psychology, one may conduct research with little to no funds, since they could include high-impact work with archival large-scale cohorts. A report by UCU shows “the University has used inappropriate grant income thresholds, which our models demonstrate >50% of Russell Group staff in matched areas do not meet.”  

Given that all psychology colleagues continue to be listed for redundancy, the metrics are clearly weaponised against psychology. Many of these permanently employed staff are world-leading researchers. What is particularly cruel is that none of the staff selected for redundancy were made aware of the metrics, or indeed the way those metrics were applied to their performance. Neither were they given the opportunity to ensure the data applying to them was accurate. The strength of feeling from external colleagues is partly in response to these unfair practices. Thousands of professionals have signed open letters to protest the actions, including medical and clinical practitioners. The Liverpool Guild of Students have also written an open letter in solidarity with staff taking industrial action, with a twin petition with over 150 signatures so far. A few open rallies have also been organised by students – the one planned for 24 June is expected to attract hundreds of attendants.

Additionally, the threatened redundancies have serious implications for undergraduate and postgraduate  psychology programmes in the Faculty. The reduction in staff on the undergraduate psychology programme will mean that minimum staff-student ratios will not be met which in turn risks losing BPS accreditation. In addition, at a time when Health Education England is funding an increased number of clinical psychology training places nationally to meet the growing need for the clinical psychology workforce within the NHS, the University of Liverpool has declined the offer of additional places for September 2021 in the context of these threatened redundancies. Contrary to the goals to tackle health inequalities with Project Shape, the university will be training fewer clinical psychologists and failing the local health economy. Fewer service users and carers will get the psychological support they need.

In the market-driven context of Higher Education as it currently exists, other universities will be urgently considering how to mitigate against the loss of income associated with Covid-19. The experiences of both the University of Liverpool Department of Psychology and Doctorate in Clinical Psychology programmes suggests that psychological research and training is particularly vulnerable. Losing undergraduate provision will affect the ability of graduates to enter the pipeline toward clinical psychology. This is in contradiction to the NHS Long Term Plan’s commitment to increasing access to psychological and psychotherapeutic services, which requires a significant growth in the workforce. Higher Education Institutes need to be flexible and able to grow responsively to expand the education and training posts for psychology professions. 

It is of considerable concern that the metrics being used by the University of Liverpool to support its proposed redundancy decisions perpetuate research and higher education barriers for women and minoritised groups and those with caring responsibilities. The focus on grant income also discriminates against those academics who choose to focus on projects driven by community needs rather than hawkishly follow trends in big-money projects. Marketisation of higher education has led to a focus on grant income and bean-counting citations. These metrics are hard to reconcile with the needs of communities who experience marginalisation. They also fail to recognise the vital work in focusing on stigma and discrimination; psychology should be leading the way in change in this area. Additionally, given the lack of diversity in clinical psychology, and the role the profession has in addressing the limitations of the current evidence base, we have concerns if the current University of Liverpool approach is taken wholesale by other universities: this will reinforce and further build on the structural barriers that exist already. 

We are asking for supporters to write to the University of Liverpool senior management team, sign the student petition on assessment quality and fairness and to donate to the Liverpool University College Union strike fund. People are also encouraged to inform people within their profession about what is happening and to open up conversations about making changes to governance structures and recognition of talent in universities to ensure this will not happen again.

- Dr Luna Centifanti, Dr Andrea Flood, Dr Beth Greenhill and Dr Laura Golding

The University of Liverpool have 'Frequently asked questions for students', and an update from 26 May.