Wednesday, 17 November 2010

The University of Birmingham and the cuts, alternative view

I’m sure you all aware that the University of Birmingham, in response to government policy, are planning considerable changes. Currently the narrative pushed by the guild officer team, for the last three years, is that we must focus on lobbying the government to stop the changes at the top. Considering that at this point to tip the balance a total of 42 Lib Dem rebel votes are needed, with 15 Lib Dems remaining loyal, the attempts to spark a Lib Dem rebellion seem somewhat futile however, it’s a worthy attempt, which we can all get behind.                      

 Why then ignore the university? They are not exactly a benign organisation, with only students’ interests at heart; the university management has its own agenda which doesn’t always coincide with the needs of the students or staff. The university is, by its own admittance, considerably well placed to deal with cuts; operating on an annual surplus £45.925 million and this year is predicted to operate on £36.134 million poind suplus. This puts it in a relatively good position compared to other Higher Education institutions. Despite this good position the university is planning on making £20 million pounds extra a year by 2012/13. Of this £20 million, £10 million is to be made up from increases in revenue (i.e. student fees) and the other £10 million from cuts to services. All this has been framed in a university plan called Sustainable Excellence, which outlines changes to be made by the academic year 2012/13.

“the policy, established through Sustainable Excellence, of taking difficult decisions to disinvest from those areas which do not support our strategic ambitions,” From Shaping our future Birmingham 2015
( Sustainable excellence is an odd take on the idea of sustainability; it does not outline a plan of how to maintain the current standards of education and services at the University of Birmingham, instead it outlines a plan to maintain the universities aggressive growth strategy in the face of cuts. So sustainable in university doublespeak can be taken to mean growth; and disinvest from those areas which do not support our strategic ambitions can be taken to mean cuts to those departments which are not profitable.

On top of the money taken in from fees and cutbacks, the university is planning on using its expanding American-style, alumni-based funding to support its aggressive growth strategy. 

 “Circles of Influence fundraising campaign will raise £60 million by 2012 to support areas of critical investment, and will be developed beyond that date”

By critical investment the university means its long term strategic goals such as the development of the estate. However, supporting critical investment could instead be investment in students and staff. The immediate impact of the university managers’ ‘grand ambition’ is going to hurt not just staff and students, but the university’s finances.  Restructuring costs were projected to rise to £9.2m this year, which was a reflection of costs attributed to the Sustainable Excellence proposals. Meanwhile the University of Birmingham has developed, proportional to income, one of the most expensive management systems in the country. The total cost of management pay in 2001 was £3,150,000, rising to £13,310,000 at present. The number of staff paid over £100,000 at the University of Birmingham has gone from 28 to 96 and there have been average increases of 19.9% each year since 2000, for the top university staff. The Vice-chancellor's salary has also  staggeringly increased from £169,000 to £342,000. These increases are vastly out of proportion with the growth of the university (6.6% per year) and increases in the average staff member’s wages (less than 4.55% per year). Extraordinarily, the Vice-chancellor charges the cost of a chauffeur to the university (despite living less than 1 kilometre away from the university) a cleaner and gardener despite earning over thirteen times the average UK salary.

The university has a strong financial position, strong alumni fundraising network, and a system of excessive wages and rewards. If, instead, it was to commit to a less aggressive growth strategy, cut back on top wages, put alumni money into services already in place and stop its planned lay-offs, then the current plans for increasing income through raising student fees and cutbacks to services would be unnecessary. There would even be resources left over for new growth.

This is not the time for aggressive growth paid for at the cost of students, staff and academic quality. Rather it is the time for our version of ‘Sustainable excellence’; to curtail unsupportable growth and maintain the services we currently benefit from in areas that may not be deemed immediately profitable.

Note: The Guild of Students’ response to the plan which formally prioritises aggressive growth over maintaining access to education, staff jobs and quality of education, has been to welcome the plans. It was formally noted that “Students, whilst welcoming the reasoned approach set out in the paper, were concerned that disinvestment might lead to reduced student choice in the future. It was noted that enhancing the quality of teaching and learning and the student experience were “important aspects of sustainable excellence.” The Guild last year passed the sustainable excellence proposals through both council and senate. I would encourage students involved in the Guild to encourage the representation of students’ needs and not just the needs of the government and University elite.

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