Blogconfidential: Let the new era of austerity commence?

Your chance to advise on academic dilemmas. Each week, Dr Margot Feelbetter poses a dilemma and offers advice for readers to respond to online. This week: Let the new era of austerity commence?

September 2, 2010

On return from leave recently, I called into my university buildings to check out some structural and cosmetic work that had been undertaken during my absence. In short, I just wanted to make sure my own office had not suffered unduly.

All was fine and the building work seemed to create a pleasant ambience in the cafeteria area. But when I went into the post room, I discovered a memo on the noticeboard outlining major changes for the temporary teaching staff in our department.

We have three staff on full-time temporary contracts and they've been told that their contracts will not be renewed. To add insult to injury, their work has been "reallocated" to the remaining eight teaching staff (which includes me).

These posts were originally held by permanent staff members who left the university for pastures new, and we were assured that the "temporary" contracts would be made permanent within 12 months. It is not just the somewhat autocratic way in which these temporary staff have been unceremoniously terminated, but the arbitrary and abusive way in which their work has been "redistributed".

I'm at a loss about what to do. Such action will lead to a reduction in the quality of student support, increased workloads - I'll have to put in an extra six to eight hours, at least - but it also raises major concerns about our line manager. I thought she was a good person and working with us, not against us. I want to do something about this, but don't know where to start.

I didn't expect this sort of concern for at least six months, but it would seem that all universities have started planning for cutbacks.

Early indications suggest that a quarter of teaching posts will be vulnerable. At a time when we really need education, when 140,000 students have been unsuccessful in getting on to degree courses and we are on the verge of a further recession, staff in higher education will be laid off. Yours is just one example of a dilemma of great magnitude - a veritable catalyst to motivate you and your colleagues to take action.

Seek alliances and make reasonable arguments with the managers who have been so insensitive. Don't set yourself up to be the one person who gets picked off, however, because you were the most vocal. We have a diverse range of staff in academia, many of whom are apolitical, disinterested and quite happy for the likes of you to put your neck on the line.

Demand meetings with the dean, suggest ways of handling budget cuts that do not lead to such impersonal and wretched management practices. See what the union is doing, although I must say it really should have been more dynamic in drawing up the lines of battle after the most recent round of government and university cuts - be honest, have you noticed that much activity?

It is going to get terrible and there'll be all sorts of Machiavellian plots. I'm afraid, this is only the start of things to come.

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