'Toxic combination' threatens jobs cull

Public policy and institutional profit-seeking could be disastrous, claims UCU. Melanie Newman reports

July 16, 2009

Thousands of university jobs are at risk across the sector, according to a report published this week by the University and College Union.

The report, Betraying a Generation, says that almost 4,600 jobs are under threat, about 2,000 of them at London institutions. It says that 45 universities are in the process of axeing posts, while 99 others plan to do so in the near future.

Old and new institutions alike are affected, from Imperial College London, where 130 jobs are set to go in its faculty of medicine, to University of Wales, Newport, where more than 20 compulsory redundancies are planned.

The UCU argues that the cuts are the result of a "toxic combination of government policy and institutional myopia".

The Government's decisions to freeze the number of full-time undergraduate places at last year's levels and chop £150 million from the sector's budget are criticised, as is its refusal to fund equivalent or lower-level qualification places, which saves it £100 million a year.

Universities are also criticised, with the UCU accusing them of using the financial crisis as an excuse to reduce staffing levels when their true aim is to drive up profits or create bigger surpluses.

In 2007-08, the sector as a whole had more than £9 billion income and expenditure reserves, plus cashable assets worth more than £5 billion, according to UCU research.

At King's College London, a 10 per cent reduction in staffing costs is being sought, which the union says "could translate" into 390 job losses, on top of 30 jobs cut from its IT department earlier this year.

Rick Trainor, principal of King's and the outgoing president of Universities UK, warned staff in April of the likelihood of redundancies, referring to a projected £14 million recurring deficit. But the local UCU branch pointed out that Standard & Poor's, the credit ratings service, had just raised King's credit rating from AA- to AA.

The UCU said King's held cash reserves of £185 million as of March and that its net debt was low compared with other institutions.

King's said the UCU's figure of 390 job losses was "conjecture", although it added that it expected "a significant reduction in public funding over the next few years".

The UCU report also quotes Paul Greatrix, registrar at the University of Nottingham, saying: "Are we bad for wanting to make a profit? Does this put us into the Gordon Gekko league? Perhaps not. Call it 'surplus' if you're squeamish."

The report says: "There is clearly no crisis of the magnitude to justify the massacre of jobs and rapid erosion of provision we are seeing now.

"We are not saying that the sector is awash with money. But we are deeply concerned that many institutions are hiding behind a tighter financial environment to justify the pursuit of a bigger profit or surplus."

The UCU called on universities to sign national agreements with unions to protect jobs.

Jocelyn Prudence, chief executive of the Universities and Colleges Employers Association, said: "Expansion of the sector in recent years has been really significant. If you look at the number of jobs perceived to be under threat against the overall numbers, it's hardly a meltdown of the type we're seeing in some parts of the private sector."

She pointed to Ucea's Facts and Figures: HE Staffing document, published this summer, which shows that from 2006-07 to 2007-08, academic staff numbers rose by 4,950 (2.9 per cent) to 174,945.

In the same period, undergraduate numbers rose by 0.2 per cent to 1.805 million.

Ms Prudence also argued that universities' surpluses did not equate with profits, but acted as a buffer against risk.

She referred to the Finance and Pay Data Review by the Joint Negotiating Committee for Higher Education Staff - which includes UCU members - published last December.

The report says that most institutions' surplus and investment levels are "too low to assure a sustainable future".

"Higher education institutions are not making sufficient financial surpluses to cover their long-term needs for investment in estates and other infrastructure," the report says.

melanie.newman@tsleducation.com

The full report is available at www.ucu.org.uk

Painful cuts?

Nine institutions identified by the UCU as facing possible retrenchment

  • King's College London: Ten per cent cuts to staffing costs, which "could translate" into about 390 job losses. This is on top of 30 jobs in its IT department that went earlier this year
  • University of the Arts London: At least 100 jobs to go and many more at risk
  • University of Surrey: Plans to cut 65 jobs; threats of compulsory redundancy
  • University of Bradford: Seeking to cut 40 jobs by voluntary redundancy
  • University of Wales, Lampeter: Up to 46 jobs to go
  • University of Sheffield: Looking to cut 6 per cent from staff budget, which "could mean about 340 jobs"
  • University of Wales, Newport: Some 26 compulsory redundancies sought
  • University of Leeds: About 80 jobs at risk
  • University College London: Has announced plans to cut 6 per cent from its budget, which could translate into more than 500 jobs.

Update

UCEA said in a press release today that UCU’s figures were “highly speculative”. “For for example UCU states that some of its figures are based on rumours, while others use simple maths based on a per cent budgetary cut to extrapolate a head count,” the release said.

It added that even if UCU’s figures were correct, the suggested job losses were only 0.8 per cent of the total higher education staff number of 564,690 (or 1.2 per cent of the core staff figure of 372,460). “Within higher education the normal annual staff turnover rate at HEIs is between 6 and 10 per cent,” the release said.

The UCU said it was “furious” at the response. General secretary, Sally Hunt, said: “I know I should not be surprised as this is a classic UCEA tactic, but it is still incredibly insulting. Our information on job losses is based on information from our members and is merely the tip of the iceberg. We represent academic and academic-related staff so for UCEA to pull a percentage figure out of the air based on all staff in higher education is misleading and incorrect.

“The bottom line here is that we do not yet have anywhere like the full picture of job losses to hit higher education. We are giving a snapshot as things stand based on information we have managed to get out of the institutions. Rather than quibbling over the current figures, the employers should be making clear exactly what the scale of the problem is and talking to us to minimise any redundancies.”

“UCEA’s comments have exposed their contempt for the higher education sector, staff and students and a complete failure to recognise a serious problem or address it.”

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