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The week at Leeds

October 25, 2009

Malcolm Povey, Leeds UCU president writes:

Wednesday saw one of the biggest Leeds UCU General Meetings in history, with people queuing outside the doors, unable to get in. Both the committee motion demanding “No compulsory redundancies” and the emergency motion criticising the university leadership were passed overwhelmingly. The demands that we agreed at that meeting now form part of a request from UNISON, UNITE and the UCU to meet the Vice Chancellor. In Biological Sciences, the number of job losses demanded by the university has increased to 70, contrary to the requirements of the Section 188 notice of redundancies issued at the beginning of the summer, in which the university pledged to work to reduce job losses. It is very likely that, following our meeting with the university on Monday at the Joint Committee of the University and the UCU, we will be in dispute.

When the Vice Chancellor was first appointed in 2004, he came to my departmental meeting and presented an optimistic picture of the future for the University. I said to him that we had been left a problem by the previous Vice Chancellor Alan Wilson in his implementation of a university management structure which owed a lot to the government obsession with the market and business management methods.

How things have changed. On the evening of Tuesday October 6th 2009, Michael Arthur addressed a fringe meeting at the Tory Party Conference and Shadow Chancellor George Osborne announced that Public Sector cuts of the order of 10% had to be made, in response to the banking crisis. The following day the Vice Chancellor announced to the Trade Unions that a cut of 10% would be made in the university unrestricted budget, in response to the banking crisis.

The university is not a business. Yet, in the VCs leader column in the university reporter, ( he compares academics unfavourably with business people. It is the business people in the banking sector who have lead us into a disaster, not us academics, we can be proud of our contribution to society. When I first joined the university our staff student ratio was just over 8, now it is rising towards 20 and the 10% cut can only make this worse. This is an incredible rise in productivity; we retain an outstanding international profile, attracting students and researchers from all over the world. We have done this despite a reorganisation of academic structures which has been very harmful and will inflict irrecoverable damage on this university when a 10% cut is transmitted through it. What reward have university employees been given for this massive rise in productivity? An insulting 0.5%, offer, the lowest in the public sector (and, being less than inflation, represents a pay cut). This augurs badly for any aspiration to be amongst the top 50 in the world.

Now is the time to quietly park away the ‘Top 50’ aspiration and concentrate on protecting what we have got.

Demand for student places is rocketing and the need for research and learning has never been greater. Taking £35million out of the local economy will strike a blow to the Leeds economy and the university may never recover from the impact of losing hundreds of jobs, together with the massive accumulated experience those jobs represent. In this context, years of underfunded expansion have left the university with very little ‘fat’ to cut, so the cuts will impact directly on front line services, inevitably undermining the student experience. The Vice Chancellors have not put the case for Higher Education in the UK effectively. Michael Arthur says that Leeds needs to gain a ‘competitive advantage’ by rolling out the cuts and in his view, most politicians do not support the case for Higher Education. Perhaps this is because politicians’ favourite tactic is ‘divide and rule’, I suggest that governments, both Tory and Labour, have found ‘divide and rule’ a very effective way of reducing expenditure on Higher Education; as a result the UK spend is a lower proportion of Gross Domestic Product on Higher Education of any EU country, apart from Portugal, Spain and Italy. The response of all the political parties to a Vice Chancellor voluntarily offering 10% cuts will be, ‘Thank you very much, we’ll have another 10% now thank you’.

We requested that Vice Chancellor join together with the Trade Unions to put the case for an increase in Tertiary Education Funding during recession.

I am sorry to say that the reform process instituted by the VC has left the university ill-prepared for the rough financial times ahead of us. The impact of this has been most marked in the medical and biological sciences, which are capital intensive and expensive to run. Instead of integrated academic teams, delivering both research and teaching and organised around coherent academic disciplines, we have a hotchpotch of ‘institutes’, founded upon opportunistic and over optimistic funding assumptions rather than upon a philosophical and intellectual adherence to a subject and academic discipline. It is noticeable in current plans that proposed organisational structures persist in isolating teaching from research and vice versa. We have also seen the growth of a management superstructure throughout the university, which has become part of the problem. This model has never been particularly successful; I suggest that in the current climate it is likely to be disastrous.

I do not share the financial analysis upon which the need for the cuts is predicated. Economists and accountants failed to predict the biggest financial disaster in history. Arguably, they actually contributed to it by providing pseudo scientific justification for a gigantic financial gamble. Why should we believe them now? In these circumstances, the more we give in to the demands from the banks for money, the worse it will make the recession.

The rational approach is to defend every job in education, since every job is a contribution to the recovery. This is the policy of your union.


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