Unnatural disaster

February 23, 2012

Malcolm Gillies, the vice-chancellor of London Metropolitan University, reports a "tsunami of late applications" as the reason why London Met is facing a fine of up to £6 million from the Higher Education Funding Council for England ("The cap has burst - expect a flood of fines", 16 February). Tsunamis are features of a natural world as yet unpredictable by science. We dispute both the unpredictability of the late applications and the naturalness of current events at London Met.

There is nothing natural about the 229 jobs threatened this year (which, according to Gillies, is unconnected to the Hefce fine but is said in the redundancy letters to arise from a £7 million "required" saving that the management remains incapable of explaining), the 70 per cent cuts in undergraduate courses last year, the slashing this year of postgraduate courses and the projected £11 million cuts in expenditure (mostly staff costs) in 2012-13.

Nor is there anything natural about London Met's postgraduate review, which contrary to the findings of its own research workstream, proposes that London Met undertake only research that "funds itself" in full. That review, authored by the deputy vice-chancellor Peter McCaffery, if adopted by the academic board and governors, would reduce London Met to the status of the "research-inert" for-profit sector that some academics deem unworthy of the term "university" ("Title worthy? Not with that record", 16 February). At the same time there is nothing natural about Gillies' parallel shared-services initiative, which potentially consigns virtually all non-academic staff to employment and management from outside London Met.

Graham Gibbs ("Will chasing the market really result in an increase in quality?", 16 February) argues that "sudden changes from one year to the next tend to produce resource-led or regulation-led changes in patterns of teaching that cut across local wisdom and make things worse rather than better". The decision to continue recruitment at London Met into the first two weeks of September 2011 is accountable to the deputy vice-chancellor in Gillies' absence. It was made against the wisdom of local faculty-based recruitment coordinators who predicted unusually high conversion rates (ratio of initial acceptances to students who enrol) on the basis of what was certain to be an extraordinary year for applications across the sector.

If, as we believe is predictable, the wider management-imposed strategy at London Met has the impact of destroying the university, we hope that Gillies will admit human agency. But this will be too late. Better still, given that a "perfect storm" is perfectly predictable at London Met (again), we advise London Met's board of governors to demand a change of direction or management now. If the governors do not act, what is certain is that representatives of staff and students will have no choice but to demand an independent public inquiry (again).

Cliff Snaith, secretary, Mark Campbell, chair, University and College Union London Metropolitan University

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