Too hard, too fast? One in three campuses now making redundancies

Number of institutions making redundancies passes 50, reflecting scale of financial challenge facing sector, but even some senior leaders fear rush into irreversible changes will do long-term harm

April 25, 2024
Cordoned-off area where the 'Sycamore Gap' tree on Hadrian's Wall once stood, northern England
Source: Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

The number of UK universities cutting jobs has passed 50, with leaders claiming drastic action is required to prevent institutions going under, but some are worried that the speed and scale of the restructuring has gone too far with no way back even if financial conditions improve.

A fresh wave of restructuring programmes – announced either side of Easter – means that a third of the country’s universities are now formally making redundancies, with many losing departments and services as a result, according to an influential list compiled by the Queen Mary University of London branch of the University and College Union.

Liesbeth Corens, a senior lecturer in history who has been collating the figures, said they were likely just the tip of the iceberg, given the tally only includes those cutting permanent staff and not other cost-cutting measures such as opting against renewing temporary contracts.

She said institutions were collectively losing hundreds of academics and professional staff but claimed that “short-term cuts are not the answer” and will do little to address the structural issues in the sector.

“It’s a knee-jerk reaction,” she said. “And one we have seen before. But the universities that went first are now not recruiting students, of course they are not. Why would you go to a university that is shrinking? When the programmes you wanted to attend are gone? It is a vicious cycle and a bunch of those on the list are risking that.”

The fear that cuts being made now will have long-term repercussions is shared even by some university leaders.

Larra Anderson, pro vice-chancellor (education) at the University of Essex, stressed that the changes at her institution – such as a freeze on promotions – were being made with a view that things could turn around.

“We are not in deficit at the moment but if the worst came to pass, we would be able to protect jobs and disciplines and still have a necessary surplus to fulfil our covenants,” she said, of why it was taking action. 

“If that doesn’t happen, we can reverse those measures, whereas other institutions that are cutting disciplines or utilising voluntary or even restructuring redundancies will not be in that position where they can rebound; we do see the sector improving in the next few years and we want to be prepared for that. There is no point in taking drastic measures and then having to rebuild a university.”

Other sector experts were less convinced that universities can ride out the current turmoil with much of their faculty and course offering intact. Unlike in Australia, where universities cut thousands of jobs during the pandemic only to have to rehire many again when lockdowns eased, the UK’s issues are more long-term.  

“This is a problem that is not going to go away, it is not a blip that we have got to weather for six months, so institutions have got to take some proper action,” said John Rushforth, executive secretary of the Committee of University Chairs, who added that in extreme cases the alternative could be universities going out of business.

“Doing these things properly through voluntary redundancies is way more preferable than waiting until things get out of control and having to do massive compulsory redundancies,” he said.

“Part of what this is about is ultimately protecting jobs in the longer term because it is about ensuring universities are sustainable and are still there in 10, 15, 20 years’ time.

“I’d much rather that than end up in a bankrupt situation, for example, where, under current bankruptcy law, institutions cannot put interests of staff or students above creditors. That would be far worse.”

Mr Rushforth said because staff costs were such a high proportion of most institutions’ outgoings, cost savings will inevitably have to focus on redundancies, especially as the “broken” funding system leaves institutions little room to manoeuvre.

With the future so uncertain, he said most had made a “realistic assessment” that there was “no suggestion someone is going to come riding over the hill with a vast cheque and sort university finances out”.

Most universities are also conducting full course reviews, he added, and using the moment to take stock of what they are good at and what they think future demand is going to be before making decisions about what to invest in and what to scrap.

But Dr Corens said staff often feel these processes are happening at breakneck speed and, although they want to be involved in coming up with creative solutions to the issues the sector faces, there are limited opportunities to meaningfully shape what’s happening.

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Reader's comments (8)

The current model clearly is unsustainable. There is the fact that universities lose money on every UK undergraduate -- which is supposed to be the core function of a local university. In addition, Brexit has run a bulldozer through research funding -- another core function. If you take a university where 60% or more of their students are imposing a loss on the institution and a core part of the remainder is under further pressure it is a prescription for disaster. Add to that the fact that universities have loaded up on non-revenue generating bureaucracy and you have the business model and management from hell. It also turns the few parts of the university that can make enough to cover the losses into revenue generating low quality hamster wheels.
The paradox is that most of the cuts are focussed on the areas where universities lose least because delivery costs are relatively low. If a university is seriously looking to save, it would be focussing on medicine, chemistry, engineering and the like. Many STEM areas also struggle with UK recruitment but have been cross-subsidised from SSH student fees.
Your analysis complexly overlooks the fact that the subjects being cut at many universities are because of a long term (5 year plus) inability to recruit sufficient students to be viable at that institution. In contrast the more expensive STEM subjects continue to recruit well enough to be viable despite their higher cost. The publicly available student:staff records are an imperfect but reasonable insight into this trend; very low student:staff ratio in the humanities and too high in many STEM subjects.
We need to slash excess bureaucracy in UK Universities - senior management teams breed like rabbits and generate no revenue. The senior management are often incompetent and detached from teaching and research. Indeed many are either failed academics or just in it for an easy time and getting high pay for doing very little. The bureaucracy in UK universities is out of control and most academics are fed up paying for it with real term pay cuts and ever increasing workloads.
Not all universities make changes due to financial constraints. Queen Mary University of London is in a strong financial position and we continue to strategically invest in our world-leading research (14th in the world for quality according to the latest THE World University Rankings) and education, with the overall number of staff across our University continuing to increase. As with all organisations, over time we flex our resource to align with the demands of future students and to deliver leading research to address the ever-changing challenges facing society. We have a strong record in supporting the creative, cultural and communications industries and we will continue to adapt to ensure our education and research continues to support these vital and growing sectors, both nationally and internationally.
QMUL did have a record of being 'the worst university employer in the U.K' as reported in the Guardian dated 30th July, 2022. Has that changed?
Robert (above) spot on. Other factors are involved but after reading your contribution, felt you had identified a major parasitic drain in resource. Sadly, I don't see situation changing anytime soon. This pattern of paying for gangs of deadbeat wetwipes to squander resource appears to be very well established not just in UKHE but throughout the whole Western liberalish enterprise. I could weep and often do.
A major issue is that actually this is about the future is now! We need to consider not solely STEM, but STEAM with an hyperconnected, integrated & algorithmic dependent world - it about thinking holistically & as a polymath... It is about contributing both to the socio-economic activity strategy at local, regional, national and international levels - it is shortsighted solely viewing from purely a pounds & pence perspective. This is an investment in where we are & where we go next? It is about looking at HE & research holistically, not having it separated across more than 1 government department. This is about not just the ability to survive, but the ABILITY TO THRIVE!