A sector leader has warned that more leading UK universities will be forced to make significant job cuts if undergraduate tuition fees remain frozen.
Colin Riordan, vice-chancellor of Cardiff University, said that his plan to cut the equivalent of 380 full-time jobs over the next five years – equal to one in 14 posts – represented the more extreme end of a more general squeeze on funding across the 24-strong Russell Group of research-intensive institutions.
“If you look at the Russell Group, 18 universities have seen their operating surpluses decline for the year we’ve just reported,” said Professor Riordan, who announced on 11 February that Cardiff was to cut staffing levels by 7 per cent after reporting a £22.8 million deficit for 2017-18. While Cardiff’s expenditure increased by 5.2 per cent, its income went up by only 2.5 per cent.
“It is obviously more pronounced for us, but when costs are rising faster than income you are bound to get a squeeze – it is inevitable,” Professor Riordan said.
In Wales, domestic undergraduate tuition fees have been capped at £9,000 since 2012. In England they increased to £9,250 in 2017-18, but will be frozen at this level until at least 2019-20.
Professor Riordan said that this cost Cardiff £5 million a year, and he pointed to another £5 million cut in funding from the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales.
Asked if the continuing freeze on tuition fees could lead to job losses at other research-intensive universities, Professor Riordan said that “it is certainly possible”. Rising utility costs, increased rents and growing staff costs also contributed to the shortfall, he said.
“If the unit of resource for funding students does not change or goes down and costs rise, there will have to be some kind of adjustment,” Professor Riordan said.
With Cardiff predicting a £10.6 million loss this year, a turnaround plan was agreed at a council meeting on 11 February. The university has launched a voluntary severance scheme and has said that no compulsory firings are planned at the moment, but has warned that they cannot be ruled out in future.
Redundancies at research-intensive universities are likely to come under particular scrutiny in the run-up to the UK’s next research excellence framework, which will be conducted next year and published the year after.
Under new rules, universities will be allowed to submit the work of academics that they have made redundant. There has also been speculation that some institutions might use redundancies to remove staff with weaker research track records before the REF “census” in July 2020.
In the 2014 REF, Cardiff’s grade point average was the sixth highest in the country after it submitted a much smaller proportion of eligible researchers than similar providers. This time around, all academics with “significant responsibility for research” must be included.
But Professor Riordan said that there was no link between the job cuts and the upcoming REF.
“Our strategy was always to focus on quality [in 2014] and then maintain quality but ensure we focused on quantity too in 2021,” he said.
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