Scots cash squeeze puts staff and courses at risk

January 4, 2008

Cautious university chiefs say that redundancies and programme cuts could be on the cards, reports Tariq Tahir.

Redundancies and course cuts resulting from the financial squeeze imposed by the recent Scottish university budget settlement cannot be ruled out, a university head has told The Times Higher .

The warning from Mike Pittilo, vice-chancellor of Robert Gordon University, comes in the wake of last month's Scottish spending review, which will see higher education funding increase by £30 million. That figure is £138 million short of the amount the sector had requested.

Last month, Universities Scotland produced figures to show that in the next financial year there will be a funding deficit of as much as £40 million, largely because of the costs of the final year of the 2006 pay deal with university staff.

Professor Pittilo said: "Clearly there are a variety of pressures on us in relation to the salary bill. Staff remuneration is the largest single item of expenditure, representing about 60 per cent of the sector expenditure.

"Obviously, if we're under pressure that's going to impact on us in terms of the numbers of staff we've got. Basically, we are going to have to become more efficient than we have been. That's going to put pressure on staff-to-student ratios in some areas. And in areas where we may have been able to carry (underperforming) subjects ... we are going to have to take a much harder line."

Asked directly about whether redundancies were being considered, Professor Pittilo replied: "Absolutely. It would be wrong to say we will rule out redundancies."

Another problem facing higher education in Scotland is the replacement of experienced academic staff. According to figures produced by the University and College Union Scotland, 35 per cent of staff are due to retire over the next ten years.

Other universities north of the border are also looking at potential staffing reductions and a general paring back of ambitions.

Brian Lang, principal and vice-chancellor of St Andrews University, said: "Like all universities, we will be paying very careful attention to whether we can afford to replace staff who retire or leave for other reasons."

Anton Muscatelli, principal and vice-chancellor of Heriot-Watt University, said the budget "doesn't give us additional funds to do the strategic expansion that we wanted to do".

Terry Brotherstone, president of UCU Scotland, said: "Talk of redundancies as a kneejerk reaction to a perceived financial problem would be all too typical of the way in which managers are turning universities into business corporations rather than collegial institutions.

"The outcome of the Scottish spending review was very disappointing, but real-terms funding is still going up over the review period as a whole," he said.

"With proper planning and meaningful consultation, there should be no need for redundancies or the threat of them."

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