Plan for 20 centres attacked as model campus faces cuts

Critics question viability of University Challenge in light of restructuring, writes Melanie Newman

April 23, 2009

Questions have been raised about government proposals for 20 new higher education centres in the wake of restructuring plans at a campus set up jointly by two universities.

The Government announced its intention last year to set up centres for a total of up to 10,000 students, the majority of which would be linked to existing universities.

The New University Challenge will aim to offer higher education opportunities in areas where none currently exists. It has prompted a flood of interest across the country.

However, questions are being asked about how viable the plans are after restructuring was announced at University Campus Suffolk, which will put 34 jobs at risk.

Although UCS is adamant that its plans are not linked to funding problems, the proposals prompted a University and College Union official to suggest that any difficulties UCS may be facing could have serious implications for the Government's plans.

The campus, a joint venture between the universities of Essex and East Anglia, was set up just 18 months ago. UCS has been lauded for bringing higher education to a further education college and has been held up as a model for the New University Challenge proposals.

Lydia Richards, UCU regional official, suggested that the restructuring could have broader ramifications. "If UCS is now in trouble because the mode of funding has changed, then all expressions of interest in the New University Challenge are in need of proper scrutiny," she said.

It is understood that the majority of the staff in the 34 jobs under threat will be redeployed rather than laid off. A spokesman for UCS said it was time to review its academic offer, structures and strategic direction "in line with normal business practice".

He added that some of the academic areas that UCS offered were contracting, and that it needed to invest in new academic disciplines that had scope for growth.

However, Ms Richards said the UCU was concerned that extra management posts were being created at the expense of teaching jobs. "We cannot see the logic in making these redundancies, especially when the UCS executive board has stated its ambition for growth," she said.

"We fear this is a kneejerk response to the current economic climate and that UCS has not been given a chance to develop as a university," she added.

Responding to reports that the campus was not operating at full capacity and would suffer if the Government failed to increase student numbers next year, UCS director of operations Richard Lister said: "We've got 485 additional students over the next two years, so I am comfortable on that score.

"We have been told by the Higher Education Funding Council for England that when further numbers become available again, we will be a top priority. I can't believe numbers will be frozen for ever," he said.

A spokeswoman for the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills said that the New University Challenge "remains on course".

melanie.newman@tsleducation.com.

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