Annus horribilis

June 13, 2013

Not many vice-chancellors own up to their universities being “too aggressive” on job cuts, or lament the “tragedy” of closing languages courses when their institution is doing just that.

But given the University of Salford’s disastrous start to the month of June, it appears that Martin Hall, its vice-chancellor, has decided to think outside the box.

Last week, Salford disclosed that several courses, including modern languages, linguistics and areas of politics and contemporary history, would be closed; it announced yet another round of job cuts; and news emerged that its deputy vice-chancellor, Adrian Graves, had been sacked for gross misconduct after a “furious bust-up” with a student at the university’s swimming pool.

Add in continuing controversy over the cost of Salford’s new building at MediaCityUK and the university’s failed libel action against a former lecturer, and it might appear that Professor Hall’s cup is overflowing with a toxic and possibly overpowering brew.

Is it fair for the University and College Union to say that there have been 13 rounds of job cuts at Salford in less than two years?

“Yes, it is,” Professor Hall told Times Higher Education. Salford had “too aggressive an industrial-relations stance in previous years. We’ve got new leadership now in that area within the university.”

Was Dr Graves sacked over the swimming pool incident alone, or was the decision linked to a power struggle at the top of the institution?

“The charge was one of gross misconduct,” said Professor Hall, stating that the decision had been taken by a special council committee.

“That was the charge…on which he was dismissed. It was unaccept-able behaviour [towards a student].”

On the course closures, Professor Hall said that applications on the programmes were “a third of what we need for viability”. He added that Salford had lobbied government and sector officials to extend support for modern languages, “but that’s not forthcoming”.

The vice-chancellor described the closure of modern languages courses at universities around the country as a “tragedy”, but added: “I can’t shore up a national policy failure from one small university. What I’m doing is what everybody else has done.”

On MediaCityUK, Professor Hall said that the building was “worth every penny”. It has cost a reported £2 million a year in rent and £30 million in fitting-out costs.

“Without it we would have very little distinctiveness as a way forward,” he added.

The failed libel action against former Salford lecturer Gary Duke, who criticised Professor Hall and Dr Graves, is reported to have cost more than £100,000 after a judge ruled that the university could not take action as the matter centred on individuals.

Professor Hall countered that it was “never about me” but “was primarily about students and the university”. Pursuing the action was “a judgement call” and he “understands” the criticism, the vice-chancellor added.

Does he feel positive about the future at Salford and his ability to lead it? “I’m positive about being here, because otherwise I wouldn’t be here. I’ve got other places I could be,” Professor Hall said.

And he argued that in the context of recession, fluctuating student demand in a turbulent sector and previous job cuts, Salford was “doing well”.

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