Universities are warning staff to prepare for redundancies in the new year as a result of deteriorating balance sheets and lowered forecasts for student recruitment, coupled with the uncertainty of Brexit and sudden shifts in government policy.
In recent days more than half a dozen universities have told staff there could be job cuts in 2019, including members of the research-intensive Russell Group such as Cardiff University, while others are privately bracing for cuts later in the year.
Universities are in the midst of reporting their financial results for 2017-18 and are monitoring student applications coming in for next year. Several have been alarmed by the projections they are seeing before a 15 January deadline for undergraduates.
Insiders say universities are more likely to cut staff because of a number of other threats in the next 12 months, including the potential effect on international students of a no-deal Brexit, as well as cuts to tuition fees in England as a result of a review of funding ordered by Theresa May that will report early next year.
“Knee-jerk cuts to staff will harm universities’ ability to deliver high-quality teaching and research and provide the support students need. Staff are already overstretched and asking those who remain to do even more is not a sustainable strategy,” said Matt Waddup, head of policy for the University and College Union (UCU).
“Students repeatedly say they want greater investment in their staff as a top priority, yet the proportion of expenditure spent on staff has fallen. Cutting staff will send out entirely the wrong signal to potential students. Axing educators is obscene at any time, let alone during the current uncertainty when we need our universities firing on all cylinders.”
Among the group of universities that have gone public, the University of Reading told staff in an email on Monday evening that a voluntary redundancy scheme was being drawn up and would open in January.
“I want to emphasise that voluntary redundancies are only one tool available to us,” wrote Prof Robert Van de Noort, the acting vice-chancellor, suggesting that staff should consider early retirement, reduced hours or changes to contracts to help to avoid compulsory redundancies.
Reading’s accounts, published a few days ago, reveal that the university made a £20m loss for the financial year, including a £27m loss on its subsidiary in Malaysia. Reading’s comprehensive income was only brought into positive territory by £36m of pension “remeasurement gains”.
Van de Noort told staff: “There is no doubt that the year ahead will be difficult at times, but I am confident that as a university community we can address these difficulties and remain a leader in teaching and research in the UK and globally.”
Despite Reading’s deficit, the previous vice-chancellor, Sir David Bell, saw his total pay rise by £10,000 to £329,000. Bell announced his departure this year and is now vice-chancellor of the University of Sunderland.
At Cardiff, the vice-chancellor, Colin Riordan, has also written to staff telling them they will be offered voluntary redundancy from January. The university has said compulsory staff cuts “cannot be ruled out”.
In a joint statement the Cardiff University branches of the Unite, Unison and UCU unions said: “We are astonished that Cardiff University staff are facing their third voluntary severance scheme in six years, and we are very worried that the vice-chancellor still refuses to rule out further compulsory redundancies.”
At the University of Gloucestershire, based in Cheltenham, unions say they have been advised of more than 100 job cuts and other redundancies as a result of what the university called a “rebalancing” in challenging conditions.
“There is a demographic fall in the number of 18-year-olds in the population, which is affecting demand for higher education, the level of tuition fees universities are permitted to charge home undergraduate students is capped by the government, and there is increasing competition for recruitment,” the university said.
“At the same time, we are facing large increases in some of our costs, particularly external increases in what we are required to spend on staff pensions. The combined effect of these factors is that, in common with many other universities, our costs are rising faster than our income. That is not a situation we can allow to continue.”
In Scotland, union members at Queen Margaret University in Musselburgh begin voting on Wednesday on strike action over the possibility of 40 job cuts – about 10% of its staff – although the university says it hopes to meet the number through voluntary redundancies.
Other universities considering cost cutting include Birkbeck College in London, which has a “voluntary exit scheme” open for staff, and Bangor University in Wales, which is looking to save £5m.
The university financial reporting season also reveals that some universities continue to thrive. The University of Oxford said its income topped £1.5bn for the first time in 2017-18, with an overall surplus of £150m.
Oxford’s investments grew by £286m, which was £68m more than the previous year, while the Oxford University Press contributed a further £205m.
The financial statements suggest the public controversy over vice-chancellors’ high rates of pay has had some effect, with many leading universities showing little or no growth in pay for their leaders.
At the University of Manchester, where revenue topped £1bn for the first time, the total earnings of the vice-chancellor, Nancy Rothwell, fell from £306,000 to £276,000 owing to lower pension contributions.
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