How a soaring deficit brutalised UEA’s modernising ambitions

Institution famed for its brutalist campus has paid price for bad luck and bad decisions, staff say

二月 8, 2023
Clare Martin leads getting soaked while in the 2000 metre steeplechase Norwich Union World Trials to illustrate How a soaring deficit brutalised UEA’s modernising ambitions
Source: Alamy
In too deep UEA has struggled to meet ever-rising student number targets

Brutalist architecture moulds with greenery to make the University of East Anglia (UEA) on the outskirts of Norwich one of the UK’s most striking campuses.

Indeed, the cancellation of in-person open days during the pandemic has been blamed in part for a recent slump in student recruitment, which led to last month’s announcement that staff posts would have to be cut in an attempt to balance the books.

But UEA’s struggles cannot solely be blamed on Covid. In fact, even one of its biggest assets – its campus – is now adding to the woes of the institution, by slowly falling down at precisely the wrong moment.

Teaching blocks and accommodation housed in the grade II-listed Lasdun Wall – named after architect Denys Lasdun – will be “unusable by 2025”, UEA fears, without extensive repairs, funded by a £100 million loan, which are only just getting under way.

Accounts show the institution spent £3.5 million on “phase zero” of its campus redevelopment programme in 2021-22, contributing to a deficit of £13.9 million, which was projected to grow to £37 million in three years.

Staff at the institution – many of whom spoke to Times Higher Education on the condition of anonymity – said the scale of the work needed had been known for years but they alleged there had been a lack of foresight and planning to deal with the repair bill, which was indicative of the failures that have plunged UEA into the red.

A hastily abandoned switch to a new timetabling system and millions spent on planned buildings, a London campus and an ambitious biomass generator that never came to fruition were also constant bugbears. At the same time, they claimed there had been a lack of focus on what matters, for example, creating a website that works.

“Things have been going wrong at UEA that weren’t going wrong elsewhere and ultimately responsibility has to be taken for that at high levels of the university,” said one academic. “Statements seeking to blame bad luck and external factors do not explain why UEA is in such a worse position than other universities.”

A staff member involved in admissions said the targets for student numbers were “raised year after year after year” and were used for budget forecasts, with money spent that “was never realistically going to materialise”.

The university missed its student entry targets by 8 per cent in 2022 and 17 per cent in 2021, costing it £6.4 million. Aside from the open days, management blamed a demographic dip and over-recruitment by higher-ranking institutions.

Here UEA is perhaps one of the biggest victims of the Russell Group effect. It produces high-quality research, but many high-performing students still associate quality and job prospects with the 24-strong group of research-intensive institutions, which has allowed members to grow exponentially since student number caps were lifted in 2015. 

UEA was in the 1994 Group until it disbanded in 2013 and, unlike some fellow members, was not invited to join the Russell Group bandwagon.

In 2014-15, it had 16,165 students and this grew to 19,130 by 2021-22, according to Higher Education Statistics Agency (Hesa) figures. In contrast, the University of York and Queen Mary University of London – also members of the 1994 Group – began this period with similar student numbers, 16,835 and 15,960 respectively. Both joined the Russell Group and now have 23,420 and 26,045 students each. Queen Mary’s income in 2014-15 was £376 million and is now £634 million. UEA’s was £242 million and is now £321 million.

Michael Kyriacou, chair of the University and College Union branch at UEA, said the university could have dealt with the Russell Group issue in two ways: paying up and joining or organising with others to resist the brand, but it had done neither.

Despite the issues, the announcements about cuts came as a shock to many. “There was a really sudden set of announcements. It seemed to come from nowhere,” said Rupert Read, an associate professor of philosophy.

Since then, staff have complained of near silence, with management releasing few further details about where the cuts would fall, and when. Departments are said to be facing budget reductions of between 10 and 25 per cent, but these numbers have not been officially confirmed.

“I’d have hoped you would have a clear plan in place before you announce to all staff and the media that there will be compulsory redundancies,” said Dr Kyriacou. “We expected that information to be produced very swiftly; it hasn’t.”

Victoria Cann, an associate professor in humanities, said the uncertainty was weighing heavily on staff, particularly due to the comparative lack of alternatives for higher education staff in the region.

“From cleaners to estates staff, student and professional services to technicians and academics, we are all desperately worried about our futures,” she said.

Dr Read said given that the cuts threaten nationally important departments including the university’s world-famous climate science research, it should receive a rescue package from local or national government.

Other staff said that those earning more than £100,000 should accept a pay cut and the university should disinvest from consultancies to save money instead.

A UEA spokeswoman said that the institution “must adapt to secure [its] long-term financial stability” and that more information about the proposed changes would be shared “over the coming weeks”.

“We understand that this is an unsettling time for our community. We will continue to share details with staff as soon as possible,” she said.

But ultimately many fear that, given the reputational damage being caused, by the time UEA gets around to repairing its historic buildings, it is unclear what state the rest of the institution will be in.


Print headline: How a soaring deficit brutalised UEA’s modernising ambitions



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Reader's comments (5)

UEA- clearly the problem is you haven't been paying your VC enough. Quickly - recruit another at a few hundred thousand more - that's the kind of "top international talent" you need to appreciate that buildings need maintenance. THE - any progress on getting two brains in to defend his botched experiment to marketise Unis? Isn't it time for the architects of this mess to start facing some scrutiny and accountability - or do you just do league tables?
Well spotted. Their "journalism" is just a side hustle thee days.
Yet another example of why abolishing the concept of listed buildings is top of my wish list!
Maybe the Marketing Department could run another one of their "It's YOUR Uni!" campaigns to gather suggestions for more "How to Shape YOUR Future UEA!" projects. Just an "IDEA!"
it is clear why UEA is failing and has fallen badly behind the other Uni's founded from Robbins reforms (like Warwick, York, etc). Students don't want to spend 3 years living in a failed 1960's 'brutalist architecture' experiment which is uglier than the town they grew up in. UEA failed strategy of pitifully low student numbers in the popular growing STEM subjects (incl, physical sciences and engineering) so UEA now resembles the many declining liberal arts colleges in USA. Uni's rise higher in rankings when they concentrate in STEM for grant funding, paper citations, etc. Failed UEA strategy from foundation in 60's put it in a self-inflicted doom-loop!