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British Computer Scientists Reboot

sign pointing to King's College

Credit: Katy Ereira

Early last year, the future of computer science at King's College London (KCL) was in jeopardy. More than 20 academics in the computer science department were at risk of losing their jobs, along with a group of world-renowned researchers who previously made up the Group of Logic, Language and Computation (GLLC) that spanned the computer science and philosophy departments.

The potential devastation resulted from government funding cuts of £1.1 billion in higher education by 2013 and, in the case of KCL's computer scientists, the poor performance in research rankings of the School of Physical Sciences and Engineering in which they worked.

A year later, the outlook is more positive. No compulsory redundancies were made in computer science, and the jobs of those within the former GLLC were not made redundant. In addition, as a result of restructuring relating to performance rather than cost cutting, the university's computer scientists have moved to the Department of Informatics in the new School of Natural & Mathematical Sciences.

Michael Luck, who stepped into the role of head of informatics in January, replacing Andrew Jones when his term ended, is leading the performance challenge with the goal of reaching the top quartile in the Research Assessment Exercise, a U.K. government review of the quality of university research.

Luck acknowledges the goal will be difficult. "The hierarchy of the college hopes we will be in the top quartile in the next research assessment exercise [in 2013], but that is challenging as change in the department is substantial in terms of people, integration, and culture," says Luck. "We can make some improvements in the short term, significant improvements in three years, and hopefully be in the top 10% in five years."

Some of the department's difficulties are due to last year's unrest, which saw campus trade unions staging industrial action against compulsory redundancies, global academic shock at the prospect of GLLC members losing their jobs, and media stories criticizing KCL management for, among other things, suggesting brutal job cuts while paying large salaries to top executives.

The restructuring program that transformed KCL's School of Physical Sciences & Engineering, of which computer science was a part, into the School of Natural & Mathematical Sciences, gave the university's computer scientists a fresh start in the newly formed Department of Informatics. Here, they work alongside academics from the robotics and telecommunications groups that were part of the Division of Engineering, which is being closed as a result of poor performance in the Research Assessment Exercise. In additional, computational linguistics was saved and remains part of the School of Arts & Humanities.

Luck is conscious that while KCL is one of the top 25 universities in the world according to the Quacquarelli Symonds ranking, his department does not match that claim nor compete successfully with University College London and Imperial College. But he is driving change and believes the combination of computer science, robotics, and telecommunications will provide the critical mass needed to compete successfully, and that research-led teaching, coupled with collaboration with other groups across the college, will improve performance.

Whether this will be enough to carry Luck and his team up the rankings, however, remains uncertain.

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Sarah Underwood is a technology writer based in Teddington, U.K.

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