David Maguire: it’s survival of the fittest but UEA will be OK

Interim vice-chancellor insists renowned institution can be rebuilt after mass job cuts while protecting arts courses

July 18, 2023
David Maguire

The University of East Anglia failed to move as quickly as its competitors in targeting international student recruitment but can still be saved despite the “Darwinist” nature of UK higher education, according to the troubleshooter brought in to steady the ship at the under-fire institution.

David Maguire told Times Higher Education that efforts to cut £45 million from UEA’s budget over the next two years would be “difficult” but the task could be done while protecting the “jewels of the university”, including its renowned creative writing course.

The former University of Greenwich vice-chancellor, who has held interim posts at the universities of Dundee and Sussex, was brought in by the Norwich-based institution after the sudden departure of David Richardson in February. Professor Richardson quit as vice-chancellor when it emerged that UEA had repeatedly missed its student recruitment targets, helping to fuel a £13.9 million deficit, projected to double next year.

Campus resource: How to build a stronger pipeline for international student recruitment

Employees have borne the brunt of the cutbacks, with 400 positions – equivalent to 10 per cent of the workforce – lost through redundancies, severance and resignations. The University and College Union has said morale is at “an all-time low”.

“It has affected staff – both those receiving difficult news and those delivering it,” said Professor Maguire.

“We’re in the midst of that at the moment. But we have a really good plan that we are executing against, and we will deliver the savings and close the gap in due course.”

The rapid expansion of high-reputation universities had had an impact on UEA’s student numbers, Professor Maguire said, but 20 to 30 other institutions were in the same position and some “have responded perhaps a little bit better than us, if I’m honest”.

While the rest of the sector heavily targeted international student recruitment as finances were squeezed, UEA “didn’t move as fast or as far so wasn’t able to mitigate these issues until it was a little bit too late”.

“But the good news is there is actually quite a lot we can do to address that and to make ourselves competitive,” he said.

Professor Maguire said he was already working on a plan for growth that would “concentrate and focus on a smaller number of areas which we can do really well on a global scale”.

Many fear that this places arts and humanities subjects at risk, but he said “we see value in scientists working alongside social scientists and creative people. I think that is part of the appeal of a place like this.”

The threat to the creative writing course had been “grossly misrepresented” by a “few heavy hitters making selective use of the facts”, Professor Maguire said. In reality, the university is seeking to avoid closing any subject areas or departments and its staff-student ratios would remain healthy, he insisted.

While chasing after international recruitment was “not without risks” given the current policy climate, Professor Maguire said, there was still a huge appetite for UK higher education abroad.

He was under no illusions that the university had to hold its own in a competitive market. “There is a Darwinian dimension to this. It is survival of the fittest, and we need to do our best to play the game by the rules that have been set,” he said.

Policymakers could do more to ensure a fair fight, however, according to Professor Maguire, first by looking again at the requirement for schools to report Russell Group entrants as a key performance indicator, “which encourages them to push pupils towards those institutions”.

“What we also really need is stability of long-term funding and an idea of what the regime will be for international students – not for the next six months but for the next several years.”


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Reader's comments (3)

'Survival of the fittest' - Herbert Spencer, not Darwin.
Herbert Spencer said this in response to Darwin's theory having just read 'On the Origin of the Species.' So the 'Darwinian dimension' referred to is entirely correct.
Darwinian evolution requires a selection pressure that will favour some relative to others. In a possible future, high dependence on income from international students may turn out to such a selection pressure. Those most dependent will be harmed more quickly and more deeply if funds suddenly dry up.