"It's like Daniel in the lion's den," came a stage whisper as Edinburgh University principal Sir Stewart Sutherland rose to address a staff meeting. However, he emerged unscathed from the ordeal, which might have left other university leaders in shreds.
Sir Stewart was facing his staff just days after announcing that Edinburgh must save or earn an extra £3 million a year, and having refused to rule out compulsory redundancies. Relaxed and witty, he outlined the university's negotiations for a £40 million loan that he said would enable it to take the future into its own hands rather than be subject to "the death of a thousand cuts". "We can't simply do nothing and stagger on and let this great institution go into genteel decline," he said.
British universities scarcely had time to draw breath from one year's "efficiency gains" before they were hit by the next round of cuts. But this did not apply to institutions across the globe, he said. "Our international competitors in the US, Singapore and Hong Kong are on the qui vive when they see us slipping backwards."
Edinburgh had dedicated staff and great strengths in teaching and research, Sir Stewart said. But it was set for a "strategic reassessment", with savings targets across all spending areas. "These will be financial targets. Immediately, people ask, 'How many jobs?' but if additional income is raised, you can afford more staff."
But while Sir Stewart promised that Edinburgh would remain a multi-faculty, broad-based university, he envisaged a slimmed-down workforce. Alan Walker, president of Edinburgh's Association of University Teachers, warned that people were already suffering workload stress, exacerbated by quality assurance requirements. A smaller staff, he said, suggested even more work.
Sir Stewart said universities had to keep pressure on government and the funding council for adequate resources, and help to "fight and resist" the over-regulation sweeping across the public sector. Edinburgh must also assess how it might better support staff.
After the meeting, Mr Walker made it clear that compulsory redundancies were not on the AUT's agenda. "We would not accept in any circumstances any need for solving this problem by other than voluntary means. Any severe measures that are taken, we would feel obliged to ask for an independent examination of the university's finances."