Truth behind campus news

October 3, 1997

PART of my job is to keep up with what is happening to staff on campuses in London and southern England. Every month I read a dozen or more university newsletters. I have become something of a connoisseur.

Southampton's New Reporter is breezy, newsy, and keeps me up to speed on cockroach traps, solar-powered lorry refrigerators and other staff wizardry. Bristol's Newsletter has just gone glossy, with unnerving pictures of electronic dental implants and the like. Comment, from King's College London, is cool and self-satisfied, with pages devoted to research grants and mentions of staff in the press and media.

Bulletin, from Queen Mary and Westfield College, includes a soul-baring insert from Graham Zellick, the principal. "I do sometimes wonder whether these newsletters are ever read by anyone. It is not as if they provoke any response."

The reason I am on the mailing lists is to find out about what is happening to staff and their jobs. On the Mandelson scale of spin doctoring, most newsletters rank pretty highly. There is, rightly, plenty of coverage of staff achievements. Deans appointed, books published and contracts won. Students reach the North Pole, win hockey leagues and develop new ways of investigating insect wings.

But the story that has been little touched over the past year concerns the further funding cuts, a one-day pay strike and a cull of physics and chemistry departments. Earlier this summer the University of Exeter announced plans to cut 120 academic jobs (15 per cent of full-time staff) and replace them with 60 "new" jobs.

Exeter's newsletter, Agenda, was coy, to say the least. The front-page headline was "Consultation document yields huge response", though the content of the 200 letters to vice chancellor Sir Geoffrey Holland was veiled. You had to turn the page and wait until four sentences from the end to find out that the university was facing funding cuts of about Pounds 3.8 million over the next three years.

Then came the denouement: "This will inevitably lead to reductions in staffing levels. Any job losses would be on a voluntary basis as far as possible and reallocation or retraining of staff would be considered where practicable. Compulsory redundancies would be a last resort." End of story.

At least Agenda broached the subject. New Reporter, while giving front-page coverage to last December's strike, appears to have been silent since plans were published in February 1996 to cut 15 academic staff from Southampton's school of biological sciences, although the plans have been significantly watered down since.

At the University of Kent, restructuring, which included the loss of 90 jobs, to deal with a funding shortfall was announced in May. Although information was circulated internally about the restructuring, the June issue of Kent's Newsletter was silent about any cuts. Likewise, readers of Brunel's Quadrangle will be unable to hear of their institution's plans to wind down the physics and chemistry departments.

Wyvern, the tabloid newsletter of the University of Essex, is lively, and brazen at times - for example, using the headline "Brilliant!" when a department got the maximum 24 points in teaching quality assessment. But it gave wide coverage to the decision to end teaching and research in pure chemistry, and to last year's pay dispute. It also gave a front-page spread to Liberal Democrat MP for Colchester Bob Russell, the university's publicity and information officer.

Universities are unnecessarily protective about the content of their newsletters. These free sheets do not need to be constant bringers of gloom. But they might be paid more attention if staff felt they were more open.

Stephen Court is a researcher with the Association of University Teachers. He is writing in a personal capacity.

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