At least nine universities in the UK have announced plans for staff job cuts to save money, in moves branded as “insensitive” and “despicable” by academics struggling to support students through the difficulties of the Covid pandemic.
In London, the University and College Union is fighting potential job losses at three institutions: the University of East London; Goldsmiths; and Senate House, University of London. Elsewhere, redundancies are planned at the universities of Liverpool, Leeds, Leicester, Southampton Solent, Brighton, and Dundee.
Brunel University’s UCU branch warned this week that restructuring plans could lead to redundancies in professional services. But a spokesperson for the university insisted they would not be cutting any jobs.
Disputes are under way at some of these institutions and more are planned. Typically, the universities say they need to restructure to remain financially sustainable and to counter risks, such as a fall in international student numbers as a result of the pandemic.
Anthony O’Hanlon, president of Liverpool’s UCU branch, says furious academics at his university are planning to fight cuts with industrial action. “There is huge anger across our membership about the insensitivity of doing this during a pandemic.”
Vicky Blake, president of the UCU, says: “Staff are either at or beyond breaking point, but they are carrying on, supporting students and working hard. I can’t think of a time when so many senior managers have so comprehensively failed both their staff and their students.”
At UEL, the academic union says the management is trying to silence opposition to restructuring by singling out five prominent union members for compulsory redundancy, including the chair and vice-chair of the university’s UCU executive committee. Some 92 staff have been affected by a restructuring programme but most redundancies are voluntary. Union members are taking action short of a strike in protest against this and at the increased workload for remaining staff.
Meanwhile, at Goldsmiths, university managers told staff in an email last Friday that those juggling caring responsibilities at home would not be eligible for furlough if they took part in the boycott of assessments organised by their union branch.
Blake says: “Rather than work with us, some universities are targeting trade unionists, trying to frighten people. It won’t work: branches are fighting back.”
After 17 years at UEL, Dr Jill Daniels, vice-chair of the university’s UCU branch and a senior lecturer in film, was given two weeks’ notice to leave in November. Following a storm of protest on social media, she and the other union activists are serving notice until the end of February.
Daniels, an award-winning documentary film-maker, is appealing against her compulsory redundancy. She says: “I’ve gone through all the gamut of emotions: anger, stress, sadness. Like the others, I’m over 50, and we would be job-hunting in the middle of a pandemic.” She adds: “I am the only practising film-maker in the department, and when I’m gone there will only be male film practitioner teachers left.”
Prof Mike Savage, director of the International Inequalities Institute at the London School of Economics, says UEL’s compulsory redundancies have sent shockwaves throughout the sector. He says one of the academics affected, Prof Gargi Bhattacharyya, chair of the UCU, is “one of the leading academics on race”, and that inequalities exposed by the pandemic make her work more important than ever. “She wrote what is probably the most important book on racial capitalism,” he says.
Another UEL academic affected is Corinne Squire, professor of social sciences and co-director of the centre for narrative research, who is also a leading figure in sociology, Savage says. “These are people at the top of their game,” he adds.
Dr Hannah Jones, associate professor in sociology at Warwick University, agrees. “People in the field were shocked. The feeling was if this can happen to someone as successful as Gargi, then anyone who speaks truth to power is at risk.”
Dr Helen Murphy, a lecturer in psychology at UEL, says the threat of job cuts has taken a huge emotional toll on staff. She started the academic year in September unsure whether she still had a job, after being told to interview for one of 18 restructured posts in the school of psychology. “It was all exhausting and stressful. I love my job, and I was devastated.”
In the end, psychology redundancies were averted, but Murphy was demoted from principal lecturer to senior lecturer. “I found out that we were all keeping our jobs at five to five on a Friday at the end of induction week. I was really conscious that all these young people were joining us after the mess of A-levels. I was trying to look after students and my own psychological health,” she says.
UEL did not respond directly to questions about whether it was targeting union members. It says its restructuring programme is aimed at ensuring the university’s financial sustainability, “reducing risks to liquidity generated by the Covid-19 pandemic and reflecting the changing demand for courses – by students and employers – while continuing to increase the best possible educational and career outcomes for students”.
The university says eight compulsory redundancies have been made following “competency interviews” and “after making every effort to progress alternatives”. Four of them were in the school of education and communities, it says, “an area in decline in both demand and positive student outcomes that required a definitive strategic response”.
Staff at Liverpool University learned this week there would be 47 redundancies in the faculty of health and life sciences. O’Hanlon, says: “To attack jobs in that faculty during a pandemic when there is no financial necessity is despicable.”
O’Hanlon says staff are especially alarmed that the university is planning to decide job cuts using new performance measurements based on research grant income and how often research is cited by other academics. “This is uncharted territory and feels like the sort of practice you’d expect in a big city corporate firm to get rid of the bottom 5% of workers. You don’t expect these brutal measures in a university.”
Prof Louise Kenny, executive pro vice-chancellor of Liverpool, says the “major realignment” of the health and life sciences faculty will “help tackle the extreme health inequalities and unmet health needs in the Liverpool city region, both of which have been brought to the fore throughout the Covid-19 pandemic.
“We understand this is a period of significant change in many different ways,” she says. “We want to work closely with all colleagues to answer questions, allay concerns, and offer support and guidance where needed.”
At Goldsmiths, the union last year defeated a restructuring regime called Evolving Goldsmiths, but the university is now pushing through a new “recovery framework”, with the aim of making £6m in savings. UCU members are currently taking action short of a strike in protest.
James Burton, co-president of Goldsmiths UCU, says: “Everyone is working really long hours at the moment because they are committed to the students and they need support. But to have a threat of job cuts is too much. Staff can’t understand or bear it.” Burton says the email denying furlough to carers taking part in industrial action is the last straw, and that heads of department are writing angry letters of complaint.
Des Freedman, co-head of the department of media, communications and cultural studies at Goldsmiths, says: “It was an entirely misguided email as it would unfairly prejudice the rights of any member of staff taking lawful industrial action, and would affect women carers in particular. People were baffled and outraged when they read it. It felt like another slap in the face.”
Goldsmiths says no detailed plan has been finalised and the university “deeply regrets” that staff have already voted for industrial action. “Goldsmiths’ senior management team is committed to supporting our students and staff as we continue to assess the full impact of Covid-19 alongside our underlying financial position,” it says, adding that redundancies are “always our last resort”.
Nick Hillman, director of the Higher Education Policy Institute thinktank, says: “The crisis is in many respects making changes happen faster that would have happened anyway. But many academics just want a breather.”
• This article was amended on 22 January 2021 to clarify the restructuring plans announced by Brunel University, which said in a statement that it would not be cutting jobs.