Northumbria plans £12.5 million staff cuts as recruitment stalls

Union fears more than 100 jobs at risk after university blames volatility for struggling to hit international student targets

February 13, 2024
Source: Wirestock / iStock

Northumbria University has become the latest English institution to announce plans to slash staff costs, potentially affecting 100 jobs.

Its vice-chancellor, Andy Long, blamed fluctuations in the Nigerian currency market as well as changes to international student visas for a “very sudden reduction of the number of students, from Nigeria specifically but also from some other countries”, which has impacted income projections for 2024-25.

In a message to staff, Professor Long said the university was looking to reduce staff costs by a further £12.5 million – having saved £20 million already – after forecasting that student numbers would be 700 lower on the Newcastle campus next academic year compared with 2019-20, while staff numbers have risen by 500 in the same period.

The local branch of the University and College Union (UCU) estimated that cuts on this scale would amount to the university losing more than 100 academic staff members by voluntary or compulsory means. The university said it would not speculate on specific numbers at this stage.

UCU blamed decisions made by senior management for “compromising our ability to weather these storms” and called for any cuts to “start at the top”.

Other universities, including Oxford Brookes, Sheffield Hallam, Kent and Coventry, have all made similar moves in recent months as a sector crisis caused by the freeze in tuition fees and a volatile international student market continues to bite.

Professor Long told staff that Northumbria had successfully grown its income from £250 million in 2018 to £330 million, primarily by expanding its international student population.

But further planned growth targets for international student numbers “now look very challenging”, he said, as “the UK government has continued to make it more difficult for universities to recruit”.

At the same time, Northumbria has faced higher costs from the Teachers’ Pension Scheme – which has added £4 million to the budget – and staff costs in total are growing by about £11 million a year.

In a statement, a UCU spokesperson said given that Newcastle’s universities employ more people than the city’s shipyards once did, cuts at Northumbria would have “a massive effect on the region and beyond”.

They said senior managers across the UK were using “a formula or ‘playbook’ to cut jobs and close courses” while senior managers “will always say ‘our hands are tied’”.

And while “we know the higher education system is broken”, the spokesperson said, “managers here at Northumbria made specific decisions that created specific problems compromising our ability to weather these storms”.

These included “handing [out] thousands of pounds in partnerships and consultancies that bring few benefits” and “letting buildings become so old and decrepit they’re not fit for purpose, while paying millions for shiny new vanity projects that will cost more jobs than they create”, the spokesperson said.

“We didn’t make those decisions, and we shouldn’t have to suffer for them. Now, instead of punishing us and our students for their mistakes, senior managers need to show integrity, originality and humility to put things right. If costs must be cut, they should start at the top, as has happened elsewhere.”

A Northumbria spokesperson said the university’s overall financial position “remains very strong” but the current financial outlook was “weaker than anticipated”.

“This is a consequence of a combination of fixed home undergraduate fees, difficulties around recruitment of international students and the ongoing impact of inflation,” they said.

“To remain competitive and to create room for investment in our future strategic plans, the university must address its cost base through changes to staff and non-staff budgets.

“In doing so, we will ensure we protect the student experience while supporting our staff through this challenging period. We will do all that we can to avoid compulsory redundancies while we go through this process.”

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