English university cuts set to hit struggling regions

Job and course cuts in England bring concern on impact of ministerial pressure, plus warnings that universities are ‘lazily misusing’ cost-of-living crisis

May 26, 2022
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Tied down: ministerial and regulatory pressure could result in an inverse of “levelling up” as universities make job and course cuts

Job and course cuts sought by modern universities in England have brought warnings that ministerial and regulatory pressure could inflict the inverse of “levelling up” on struggling regions and potentially “refashion the sector” in unintended ways.

However, one finance expert also said that universities citing the cost-of-living crisis to justify cuts were “lazily misusing” the concept.

A spate of cuts announcements saw the University of Wolverhampton say it was suspending recruitment to 138 undergraduate and taught postgraduate courses, as part of a “recovery plan” to mitigate the impact of the pandemic, rising costs and falling student enrolment, including from hits to overseas recruitment brought on by Covid.

De Montfort University announced plans to cut up to 58 jobs to mitigate “the profound effect of the global pandemic, which has led to a reduction in student numbers, combined with the rising costs of living”.

The University of Roehampton announced plans to cut up to 64 jobs, highlighting “financial challenges due to a range of factors, including caps on regulated tuition fees, removal of the ‘London weighting’ element of the teaching grant, rises in costs, liabilities and inflation”.

Bishop Grosseteste University has proposed 11 redundancies “as a result of the financial impact of the pandemic and the rising cost of living”.

Rebalancing course profiles is a factor in some of the moves, with Roehampton’s spokeswoman saying the university was also proposing “strategic realignment to ensure we continue to deliver the best possible student outcomes for the future”.

The government wants universities it deems to be underperforming on graduate employability metrics to reprofile their course offerings, leading the Office for Students to introduce a new regulatory system that includes absolute baselines on graduate outcomes, with ministers also threatening to introduce student number controls based on similar data.

More institutions – modern universities in regions with tough labour markets that are likeliest to fall foul of graduate employment metrics – may now be following the lead of the University of Sunderland, which moved early in 2020 by announcing it would close its history, politics and languages courses to ensure its provision was “educationally and financially sustainable” and aligned “with a particular employment sector”.

Meanwhile, all universities are being impacted by rising energy and other operational costs, and by a freeze in the tuition fee cap that the government recently extended to 2024, by which point it will have lasted seven years, delivering a major real-terms cut in funding.

But for modern universities, said Andy Westwood, professor of government practice at the University of Manchester, there is additional impact from a “lack of diversity in funding” through lower levels of research income, the government’s failure to fully replace EU structural funds through the UK Shared Prosperity Fund, and impending regulatory action against “low quality” courses.

Add to that “disincentives” for students to enter higher education with the government’s decision to lower repayment thresholds and extend the repayment period on student loans, combined with its plans for minimum entry requirements and student number controls, “and it all starts to look a bit grim”, he said.

Emerging cuts at modern universities were “the inevitable geographical [and] institutional consequence of all of these things coming together”, continued Professor Westwood, a former adviser on universities and skills in the last Labour government.

With many modern universities located in regions where the government’s stated aim is to “level up”, he warned that “pulling institutional capacity, human capital, decent jobs, networks out of places – which is what happens when you reduce courses [or] staff at universities”, will mean “you reinforce downward economic spirals rather than the opposite effect”.

Sir Chris Husbands, the Sheffield Hallam University vice-chancellor, said: “The combination of economic, systemic and regulatory pressures will drive institutional decisions and I suspect have considerable potential to refashion the structure and shape of the sector. 

“Not all of this will be predictable and not all of it will necessarily be in the form government and regulator might expect.”

Bob Rabone, a former chair of the British Universities Finance Directors’ Group, said that while energy price increases “will not be helpful”, for universities “it doesn’t have the proportionate impact as it may on a low-earning individual”.

For universities, the biggest inflation impact is from pay and pensions, explained the former University of Sheffield finance director.

“So, I have little regard for a comment which uses the ‘cost-of-living crisis’ if lazily applied to a university,” said Mr Rabone.

“It’s a misuse and ducks mentioning the pay pressures and current state of negotiations, which at 3.18 per cent or so [universities’ current offer on a national pay deal] is neither great or terrible from either perspective.”



Print headline: Campus cuts threaten to foil levelling-up agenda

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Reader's comments (1)

The Universities mentioned in the article are making cuts now as their UCU branches did not make the threshold for strike action on pay and pensions and the university leaders think now is the ideal time with weakened unions and tired and demoralised staff to attack jobs and push through cuts.


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