Anger as Surrey plans to slash jobs in politics department

Academics have been left fearing for their jobs at a university politics department after management announced a restructure

March 16, 2015

At least 13 current members of staff in the department at the University of Surrey are in “at risk” positions and only six jobs will remain under the new structure.

After hearing the news, course graduates started a Twitter campaign, Facebook group and an online petition that described the changes as an “effective closure” of the department.

But the university has maintained that no courses will close and the changes are needed to make the department more “financially stable”.

David Ashton, vice-president and registrar of the University of Surrey, wrote to all students on 13 March to tell them that the university will be merging the Faculty of Business, Economics and Law with the Faculty of Arts and Human Sciences at the end of this academic year.

The email said that the university has no plans to close any departments or courses, but that there would be “some changes to staff” and disruption to students would be minimised.

Surrey said it was planning on cutting the number of posts it had in the politics department from 14 to six, although none of the 13 current staff members have yet been issued with a notice of redundancy.

Over the weekend, politics graduates took to Twitter to start a campaign using the handle @SurreyPolGrads to express their support for the department and retweet information about what was happening. Their Save Surrey Politics page on Facebook has more than 1,575 likes and a petition has reached about 800 signatures.

In a post on the Facebook group the university commented that it “never had any intention of closing” the department.

In a statement to Times Higher Education, Surrey’s vice-chancellor, Sir Christopher Snowden, said that the proposals for the department were part of a “wider review” of university’s future and how to “maintain excellence across all areas in light of the challenging financial circumstances facing the higher education sector”.

He added: “Through our analysis, it is clear that we need to develop a more financially sustainable base for the department of politics. We are proposing to reduce the staff numbers in the department in order to sustain a viable staff-student ratio.”

Sir Christopher added that the proposals “refocus the department on its current strengths” of delivering a high-quality experience and aim to “improve its research performance and ability to generate more research income”.

“We are confident that, post-restructuring, the department will regrow to be a successful subject with strong teaching and research, which is attractive to well-qualified student and staff applicants,” Sir Christopher said.

The department ranked 50th out of 56 politics and international studies departments in the research excellence framework with a grade point average of 2.08.

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Reader's comments (22)

Two worlds colliding. The post-REF period of relative calmness has ended. Two related posts in links below -
May I just clarify a couple of points, which do not come across clearly in the article? Whilst no staff have been issued with redundancy notices, we have all been notified that we are 'at risk of redundancy' and have received offers of voluntary severance. We are able to apply for one of five positions in the 'restructured' department, none of which are chairs. There are four professors in the department. If we are not successful in obtaining one of these positions, our posts will be declared redundant. We will then receive a formal letter notifying us of our expected end date and Redundancy Pay. This applies to all the staff with the exception of one person who has a Faculty wide role. There is a consultation exercise but the period of consultation does not end until after the deadline for deciding on "voluntary" severance. Can I also point out that the Politics department did not do well in the REF but is ranked •4th in NSS 2014 and overall satisfaction of 97% •6th in the Guardian University Subject League Table 2015 •17th in the Complete University Guide 2014
Quality teaching cannot be divorced from quality research. Nor can we simply choose which league tables we accept as relevant and which we dismiss as meaningless. Having said this, the University of Surrey is not making any decisions based on league tables results. There are no plans to close Politics at Surrey. Quite the opposite. The strategy is to make changes in this department now in order to ensure its future strength and growth.
We can argue about league tables endlessly but let's face it, if certain league tables are going to be used against individuals, units and institutions, no-one should be surprised when the same type of data is used in defence. But let's forget about Department of Politics's excellent NSS record and instead point to the fact that our graduates and our current students rallied round to defend us in the last few days and to send personal messages about their student experience. In MEQs, I pay attention to the freeform comments, not the stats - the Twitter account, FB page and ipetition talked about in the article were all created by graduates and seized on by yet more. That data I will pay attention to - and so should everyone else. As for research, I'm thinking here of all those articles I read prior to the REF about how flawed it was, ever has been and ever will be as an exercise. But let's leave that aside too. Shouldn't we be talking about what the appropriate response should be to REF results? Is it forcing staff out of their jobs or is it to sit down with them and talk through their thoughts and their ideas on a forward-moving strategy? And let's have another discussion about the place of the arts, the humanities and the social sciences more generally, about the contribution they make to society. And for goodness sake, let's stop turning on fellow academics when actually we have no real understanding of their work or their wider contribution. Because that's the other thing no-one is saying about our Department - we punch above our weight in terms of our voluntary contributions to the University, our discipline and its associated professional associations. Be careful which measures you support because universities and society get by on voluntarism. We can all become self-interested, ruthless in pursuit of our own interests and dedicated to our own advancement and nothing else - is that what we want?
I hope I will be forgiven for directing readers to other examples of the same thing, which needs to be RESISTED, but there is so much commonality in the behaviour of those individuals who are obtaining hundreds of thousands of pounds from the public institutions they are corrupting, that only when the academy will block their way (and help from outside is welcome, as an independent academy is a service to society as a whole) can we hope for a return of the University as an educational and cognitive space of human culture. Examples of similar restructurings on teaching (and research) can be found here (in general) and here for the particular course I used to teach, prior to my dismissal "by reason of redundancy" and let us not forget those academics who have died as a consequence of this type of management practices
Hasn't the University of Surrey just decided, in a rather hard-nosed way, that it's not happy with quality of its politics staff and thus wants to replace all but five --hand-picked, despite the redundancy process-- of them? Rest assured, at some later, but too far away date, it will recruit to replace these redundant staff with people it considers of better research quality. C'est la vie en 2015. Lesson: REF counts for more than NSS. University reputations are built on research not happy students.
As a recent graduate from the Politics department, I have to say that the Politics department was disorganised. The quality of teaching is poor, there was a lot of tensions between members of staff and the way they dealt with the undergrad dissertations was so shambolic that many students degrees were completely devastated. Glad that something is going to be done. If Surrey is going to remain a top institution, it needs to hire quality academics who actually get cited and are respected in academia.
Another important point here that I personally don't believe the university is taking into account is reputational damage to the politics department and the university as a wider institution if these changes go ahead. Reducing the number of staff in the politics department by over 50% in such a short space of time with such little consultation will leave prospective students, as well as current students, wondering: - If the university is truly committed to the future of the department or if it has a view to eventually close it completely? - If the university will make drastic changes in the future at short notice, changes which could impact on the structure of the course and potentially the value of the degree? - If the university listens to the feedback from its students, alumni and staff or if it's approach to decision making is top-down? These are all questions that in my opinion could worry future applicants, who value stability and continuity as factors that are equally important to rankings and research.
It is disturbing when staff in a Politics Department - particularly one that focuses on European politics from Ireland to Greece - is dismissive of scholars who work on the politics related to postcolonial nations and the work of scholars of Postcolonial Studies (see readers' comments above). Decolonization movements have had the largest impact on international politics for at least 60 years (probably more). Eurocentric politics departments that do not take into account postcolonial political perspectives are out of touch in a contemporary UK university.
My time studying politics at the University of Surrey opened my eyes to a whole range of new perspectives not only on the subject of Europe but also the political economy with a focus on asia, international relations, public policy, political ideologies and gender theory to name a few. Having studied under the academic staff this pertains to, I have to say Justin, that I wholeheartedly disagree with your characterisation.
I am not sure what Justin Edwards is talking about, no one is dismissive of his scholarship, but he would do well to remember that Irish people and Black people in the said department might have different perspectives on colonialism than white scholars. Believe me, as an Irish scholar I am familar with what goes on in postcolonial nations, I work in Africa and the Middle East and this sits at the centre of what I do in international politics, However it is a grave error to say that this is a central influence in international relations and international politics. Why else would I and my colleagues at Aberystwyth, Lahore, Singapore and beyond be involved in trying to establish a world wide group of scholars focused on IR in the non-Western world? Please see our recent panels at the International Studies Association and the British International Studies Association and at the Ir Global South Conference in Singapore. Before you attack, get your facts straight, Justin. And as a colleague that I meet in the corridor, you might want to think of me as a human being, who, in the space of a month has lost my mother, my family home and as a result of losing my job will now lose my home in England. I have always treated you with courtesy and consideration. So what is going on here? I even clean up the mess in the communal kitchen. So why so hostile?
If I may reply to two of the comments: Christina Evans: as a current student of the department I've been taken aback by the willingness of the staff to offer us guidance on our dissertations, when they could just as easily direct us all to our individual tutors. For example, one lecturer (who is not my tutor) took the time outside of her office hours to read and critique my source material. I struggle to see what more could be done on the part of the teaching staff, although I can only speak from my personal experience. Justin Edwards: to agree with the decision is one thing and you are, of course, entitled to vocalise your agreement, but to antagonise colleagues (from the same faculty!) as they experience hardship is a total failure of empathy. It seems especially peculiar since you protested much less drastic cuts to the English department but are happily advocating cuts to politics - based on the scholarship not being focused enough on your area of expertise?
*The protest I referenced was regarding a separate institution. My apologies for this mistake.
This article fails to draw attention to the immediate impact of the said 'restructuring', which reflects the University's lack of respect for the enrolled students. After-all we are in the process of dissertation's, job hunting, alongside all the other students who are in the middle of the second semester deadlines, and this is pretty unsettling news. Our degree will loose worth if these changes become effective. 'Oh, you studied at Surrey? Isn't that the Department which was shut down?' - this does not give any future employers confidence in hiring current students. Moreover, the very fact that our lecturers have emailed us assuring that they will continue to teach us and make us a priority, despite the unsettling news, reflects how much of a worthwhile department it is. The department may not be home to the world's most cited scholars, but it is certainly contributed of a worthwhile team, which bring fresh insights into the discipline. Marie, for instance, begun the study 'Critical Terrorism Studies'. I feel honoured to be taught by such academic! REF also doesn't take account the effort by the lecturers to widen our scope of knowledge by inviting an array of guest speakers, from respected academics to politicians, to enlighten us on different issues. And while other Universities may have the 'big names', they don't have such high student satisfaction with high employability rate. Employers don't just look for high classifications, they look for transferable skills, something which our Department is excellent at helping us develop. As a soon graduate, I know that aside from the political knowledge I have acquired in the past years, I have also obtained a great amount of transferrable skills which are fundamental in the 'real world'. While again, this article sights how the University has not led in terms of research, it does not explore other successes. If the Politics Department was such a shamble, it would fail to send students across the world (from working in Brazil to Germany and Madagascar) and continue to have successful exchange programmes. As a final year student, I find the University's attitude and actions at this time to be disrespectful, distrusting and disheartening. I would rather be taught by individuals who respect me and help me improve heaps than by people who are just focused on wining grants. Finally, I would like to support Matthew's comments. The student at this Department have always gone beyond the necessary to help me advance and do better - from helping me write Cover Letters to understanding how to writing excellent essays. I pride myself being a student of the Politics Department of University of Surrey.
The staff at this Department*
It is encouraging that these debates are taking place openly. Normally the secrecy surrounding similar impositions means that attention from the outside comes too late, after the bullies have bulldozen through. (After all, once the fire has burnt the forest it takes a while for new vegetation to grow; and only if the land behind remains fertile and protected). I would like to reply to Robert Corbishley who asks "Hasn't the University of Surrey just decided, in a rather hard-nosed way, that it's not happy with quality of its politics staff and thus wants to replace all but five --hand-picked, despite the redundancy process-- of them?" Precisely so, but then bear in mind it is hard to prove such complicity, see for example that the manager who allegedly hand-picked me denied doing so (he was monitoring who was being affected by his criteria thresholds because he had a responsibility that the School should remain functional...): Robert also points out: "Rest assured, at some later, but too far away date, it will recruit to replace these redundant staff with people it considers of better research quality." He is quite correct again, but then the Employment Tribunal that looked into my case remained equally unimpressed about such recruiting in the midst of "redundancy situation": The case is with the Employment Appeal Tribunal and will influence the legal standing of disputes like the one Sir Christopher has unleashed against the University of Surrey. (alas, when the academic goes to court it appears as Academic vs University instead of University vs Manager…) oh, and of course, the managers destroy and move on elsewhere… (already the two Vice Principals who were called as witnesses regarding my dismissal from Queen Mary are "working" at Kings and Aberdeen, respectively, and so their appearance as "Queen Mary" on paper is a real issue and misnomer).
Mr Christopher argues: "We are confident that, post-restructuring, the department will regrow to be a successful subject with strong teaching and research, which is attractive to well-qualified student and staff applicants," I mean this statement is simply daft, how can you have strong teaching if their are only 6 lecturers having to cope with the huge workload and a shortage of experience. I think Surrey University should really consider what university means does it mean education or does it mean research. I believe its a hundred percent education and our politics lecturers have worked so hard day and night to keep the quality of education high and our lectures interesting. How can we suddenly remove lecturers from there jobs and turn your backs on them. You can have all the best research in the world but by doing that we are depriving those who really need an education to succeed in life who have worked dam hard to get where they are from a poor background. We are depriving the department from expertise and quality. No research in the world can create education for the new generation. As a student who pays £9000 a year to the university I demand that students should hold a democratic referendum on whether the Chancellor can go through with this decision or not as its our money we are paying. I don't want an elite making our decisions at the expense of my money. I did not pay my tuition fees so that the scope of lecturers could fall to 5 and definitely not for the Chancellor to tell us everything will be dandy after the structural change when 16 jobs are on the line is simply outrageous. I pay my fees for my education and we should all have a say. With all due respect Chancellor you work for us and thats what has been forgotten here in surrey. We need a student referendum on this issue as its our education being affected and lecturers loosing their jobs which could be life changing affects as Marie mentioned would lose her home in England. I don't want an elite making our decisions for us it.
As I final year Politics student at Surrey, I can only add to the sentiments of Matthew and Bea. When it comes to teaching and support from the lecturers, I have found this department to be second to none. Our courses have been interesting and varied, and are taught by lecturers who are genuinely engaged in the subjects they are teaching. The level of support, whether it be academic or personal, from the department is also exceptional. I am currently halfway through my dissertation, and whilst I can only speak for myself, the support I have received from both my dissertation supervisor and other staff members has been far beyond the minimum required, with, as Matthew said, many staff going out of their way when they may not have to in order to support students. Indeed, Justin Edwards would do well to remember that this is an area in which his (English) department appears to struggle. English students at Surrey are considerably less satisfied with their feedback than the Politics counterparts, with 66.4% of English students satisfied with their feedback vs. 80.4% of Politics students. Similarly, English students are also less satisfied with their teaching than Politics students, with 93.8% of English students satisfied with teaching vs. 99.3% of Politics students, all of which is why the Politics department is ranked 6th nationally by the Guardian, and the English department 37th (Source: The Guardian). Of course, this is no personal insult to Professor Edwards, and I don't mean to turn this into a Politics vs. English slanging match, but people in glass houses ... Nonetheless, if the department is struggling with research, then of course that is an issue. But responding to this issue by effectively closing the department with destroy what, by every other standard, is one of the best performing Politics departments in the entire country, without effectively addressing the research issue. I hope that Vice Chancellor Snowden will be able to recognise that the value of a University goes far beyond its research, because if he does, he'll realise that the Surrey Politics department, far from being a dead weight, is one of the most valuable departments the University has.
Just up: Blogpost from the Council for Defence of British Universities on this topic: Bottom line message: of course University courses are not set in stone and may need to change over time, but this is not the way to handle it, with sudden announcements of restructuring that leave staff shattered and do not consider the impact on students.
Well I graduated from Surrey in 2014, the first year the new dissertation proposals were introduced, whereby supervisors no longer marked your dissertations. What most students in my cohort found was that your supervisor would tell you one thing and your marker another. For instance, my supervisor adjusted my research question and this same RQ was critiqued by my marker. Or, I was advised to use a particular methodology and this was also critiqued. There was no accountability amongst supervisors, who gave lethal advice. How can your supervisor think your dissertation is worth a 1st class but the marker give it barely a 2:1? What this says to me is that there are some serious issues in quality amongst the lecturers in that department. But, the students were the ones who suffered, so now I'm glad that serious measures are going to be taken in that department.
Solidarity from our friend SOAS
@ Christina Evans We all understand that you are unhappy with your dissertation mark, and that you blame the department for it. But expanding that to repeated, unfounded, critical generalizations and identifying your own personal concerns with "widespread problems" in the department is selfish, short-sighted, and unjustified. It also runs counter to the reports of others. Even if (and I doubt it) the reforms caused widespread lament, it is just _one_ of the many responsibilities of tutors to their students, and those responsibilities are just _one_ part (albeit an important one) of a staff's workload. Saying that "I am glad they are addressing these problems" is also just mean-spirited. Do you realize we are talking about people's jobs and livelihoods? Somehow, I think you will survive your 2:1 better than they will survive being sacked in a unjustified managerial decision that may spell the end of their careers as teachers and scholars!