Profs attack managers

November 24, 2006

A leaked letter says the future of Middlesex University is under threat. Phil Baty reports.

  • Managers accused of 'eroding the academic fabric of the institution'
  • Professors call on governors 'to exercise their authority and safeguard the future of the university as an academic institution'
  • Union says members' patience is now exhausted. 'UCU considers that the management are part of the problem, not the solution'

More than two dozen Middlesex University professors have accused managers in an unprecedented orchestrated attack of "eroding the academic fabric of the institution" and threatening its future.

A letter signed by professors, written to Middlesex's governing body but leaked to The Times Higher , warns of their "grave concern for the future of Middlesex University".

It says that the "failure to control central costs and the series of failures in the estates strategy has led to a crisis of confidence among senior academic staff in the executive management of the university".

The professors represent staff across the university's four schools and include David Ball, professor of risk management, and Jonathan Rutherford, professor of cultural studies. They attack the management for responding to the university's current financial "crisis" with redundancies.

The letter questions the university's "commitment to supporting and developing research" and warns that planned academic restructuring will worsen the staff-to-student ratio and damage the university's market position.

It says: "We call on the governors to exercise their authority and safeguard the future of the university as an academic institution."

The university is forecasting a deficit of about 3.5 per cent this year (Pounds 2 million), against a planned deficit of 4.5 per cent. A spokeswoman said that a "small" surplus was planned for next year and confirmed that the university had shed 300 staff since 2001.

Middlesex is in the middle of restructuring programmes for September 2007, introducing year-long modules instead of semester-based courses and making more use of "formative assessment" instead of traditional exams.

Michael Driscoll, the vice-chancellor, thanked staff last week for "bearing unusually high burdens" relating to this work.

The university also had serious problems with its ten-year strategy for campus development, announced in 2000. In 2004, the university decided not to proceed with a multimillion-pound plan to build a campus in Tottenham Hale.

It switched its attention to its Trent Park campus, in Enfield, with plans for a new Learning Resources Centre with a 200-seat lecture theatre and a five-storey hall of residence for 199 students.

But after developing detailed plans, the university was refused planning permission in January this year.

The university declined to say how much it had spent on the two planned developments before they were abandoned.

Concerns about the university's financial position came to a head in June 2006 when Professor Driscoll warned all staff that he might not be able to afford the national pay rise.

He said that contingency plans should be developed to "identify poorly recruiting academic programmes and to reduce staff numbers."

He warned: "The next year will be challenging. It is essential that we work hard to eliminate recent financial deficits, progress the reforms to our academic framework and continue to consolidate and improve our estate. More than ever, we will need to work closely together to achieve these aims."

In July, Waqar Ahmad, assistant vice-chancellor for research, and Margaret House, deputy vice-chancellor, wrote to senior staff at their home addresses. They warned that "the university's budget for 2006-07 will be extremely challenging" and confirmed plans to lose up to 19 professors and managers from the 157 staff on senior management and professor grades.

In the event, the university said it lost only three professors and two senior managers over the summer, on voluntary redundancy terms. A spokeswoman confirmed that the pay rise would be implemented as "all recruitment targets" for 2006-07 had been met. She said there were no plans for compulsory redundancies and that the campus development plans were now "going well".

Jenny Golden, regional official for the University and College Union, said:

"Our members are moving towards a position where they increasingly have no confidence in the management or governance of the university.

"They have shown remarkable tolerance with their management but patience is now exhausted. Our members believe that financial decisions have contributed to the size of the deficit and continue to do so. UCU considers that the management is part of the problem, not the solution."

One signatory to the professors' letter said that names had been submitted to the clerk of governors ahead of its meeting next week. He said that the letter had never been intended for publication and that the version that had been leaked to The Times Higher may have been a "draft".

Five signatories contacted The Times Higher , some copying in research director Professor Ahmad, saying that they disassociated themselves from the letter now that it had been leaked.


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