Unease over Liverpool's plans for a research-focused 'realignment'

Voluntary redundancy offer may herald further upheaval, says UCU. Melanie Newman reports

January 15, 2009

The University of Liverpool is offering voluntary redundancy to all staff as it moves to boost its research profile.

Campus trade union sources said that up to 200 redundancies were planned. In addition, the sources said, an academic recruitment freeze had been operating informally since June.

The cuts are part of a "realignment" to achieve goals set out in the university's new strategic plan. Vice-chancellor Sir Howard Newby's strategy for Liverpool's next five years includes a plan to "sit in the top half of the Russell Group in terms of total research income" per staff member, to reach the top 75 in international league tables and to increase the proportion of postgraduate students to 20 per cent of the total student body by 2014.

The strategic plan also outlines Liverpool's intention to increase the proportion of overseas students to 25 per cent of all students and to achieve a recurrent surplus of 3 to 5 per cent of total income.

Under the plans, half of academic staff are to be "engaged in knowledge-exchange activities", and income from continuing professional development will be trebled.

Some academics have interpreted the plan, and the call for voluntary redundancies, as evidence of an intention to focus the university on the sciences.

One Liverpool academic who asked not to be named said: "If the vice-chancellor wants a big increase in research-income generation, that is only going to be achieved through big science projects. My suspicion is that many departments, particularly in the humanities and social sciences, will be deemed 'uneconomic'."

A university spokesperson said: "Like all universities, Liverpool will be looking closely at the results of the research assessment exercise, but we have no plans to focus the university on the sciences. We have very strong departments in the arts and social sciences, and this will not change."

The sector has been watching the university with keen interest since Sir Howard took up the vice-chancellorship in September. Sir Howard, a former chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, was a controversial appointment because he had joined the University of the West of England as vice-chancellor just 16 months before.

Sir Howard's plans to improve UWE's links with business and increase knowledge exchange, and the university's appointment of his wife, Sheila Newby, as assistant vice-chancellor, led to criticisms by campus trade unions.

Spirit of Creation, a private consultancy used by UWE during Sir Howard's leadership, has been used by Liverpool for "work associated with strategic planning". Spirit of Creation's website says it enables organisations to "transform themselves into engines of change".

In a statement, the Liverpool branch of the University and College Union says: "There is a lot of concern and uncertainty around the intended restructuring that forms part of the university's new strategic plan. We are dismayed at the university's recent tendency to circumvent established structures and procedures in pushing the plan through.

"More generally, much of the plan's underpinning logic makes it difficult to see how the University of Liverpool's historic role as a major civic institution, making an important contribution to UK society, may be salvaged in the years ahead," the UCU statement says.

melanie.newman@tsleducation.com.

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