Higher Education in crisis

The longstanding pressures on the UK higher education system, arising from marketisation, partial underfunding , and aggressive management by university executives who have lost any educational vision, are reaching a point at which quality of education and of working lives for staff is being shredded, write Alex Bridger, Andy Kilmister, Philip Inglesant and  Liz Lawrence. So using the term ‘crisis’ is not an exaggeration


We are seeing  a rapid escalation of job losses and vicious attacks on both educational provision and conditions of employment.  Staff and students are losing out.  These cuts also impact negatively on local communities and reduce education prospects for future generations.

A jobs massacre

Examples of the level of job cuts proposed by employers in the UK Higher Education sector include:

  • University of Lincoln – 220 jobs
  • Sheffield Hallam University – 225 jobs
  • Goldsmiths University – 130 jobs
  • University of Portsmouth – 398 jobs
  • University of Huddersfield – 200 jobs and course closures
  • Staffordshire – up to 100 jobs

 The overall figure for proposed job losses will be in the thousands.

 Many universities have issued redundancy notices and are engaging in redundancy consultations.  This is not a case of marginal adjustments because a course has failed to recruit.  Substantial areas of educational provision are being removed, such as Music at Oxford Brookes University. 

Many staff have left on voluntary severance schemes.  This may avoid compulsory redundancies but it creates a workload problem for remaining staff in terms of covering teaching and other work.  Some employers are still threatening compulsory redundancies, despite ‘shedding’ many staff via voluntary severance.

Many university staff experience the impact of a shrinking workforce and escalating workloads.  One lecturer writes:

“I think for anyone working in the HE sector it is a really worrying time. I know of at least a dozen colleagues that have already lost their jobs in the last 12 months, through compulsory redundancy including Professors, Line Managers and Senior Technicians.  At the university where I used to work in recent years there had already been multiple waves of cuts in disciplines such as Linguistics, and then more recently there have been both voluntary and compulsory redundancies made in Psychology, Sociology and Politics. In the past few days, whole subjects look set to be removed from provision, including Geography.

At the university, where I currently work, we are just going through a voluntary redundancy programme across the university, though it looks like those people leaving voluntarily will not be enough to make up the £25 million which the university is seeking to reach. Many colleagues have been told that when people leave post that those roles will not be replaced and that everyone has to ‘work smarter’ and more ‘sustainably’.  

So basically, more work for those that stay, do more with less – and I think this means giving students less and providing a lower value experience in all fronts as people will simply not have enough time to deliver excellent teaching, do world class research and be all round excellent administrators. A lot of people where I work, in various disciplines, are very worried about their jobs and with summer looming around the corner and not knowing what will happen after the voluntary redundancy programme, the future is unknown for whether there will be jobs for some people in the next few months.”

This summarises well the pain on the ground.

Decades of marketisation

For decades now post-16 education in the UK has been affected by marketisation and the commodification of education.  This has increasingly led to a world in which university leaders focus on business plans and promote degrees to prospective students and their parents as an investment in employability.  This promotes anxiety among students who come to see the experience of education as jumping through a series of assessment hoops, with the fear that unless they achieve a 2.1 degree they will not get a graduate-level job.  The value of the degree is judged in terms of lifetime earnings, not enjoyment of learning or the social usefulness of the work many graduates perform.

Marketisation also means universities compete for students, especially in a higher education system where many students move away from home for their university studies.  This competition increased from 2015 onwards when the government lifted the cap on student numbers.  The abandonment of planned student targets for individual institutions has strongly internalised the shift towards higher spending on buildings, which are seen as aiding recruitment, and improving the student experience.  This has created a highly unstable situation for many departments which are threatened with closure because of failure to recruit in a particular year, even if applications might well rise in future .

Another aspect of the marketisation has been substantial expenditure on buildings.  The impression the institution makes on open days is seen as being of paramount importance.  While no one wants students to learn in squalor, it should be recognised that some universities, such as Sheffield Hallam, have dangerously over-extended themselves with building projects, both on main campuses and outposts in various parts of the UK or internationally.  Sheffield Hallam is opening three new buildings this year and also pressing ahead with an £8 million London campus due to open in 2026, while making 225 staff redundant.

Financial problems

Building projects have often been financed by extensive borrowing, which makes university finances more precarious.  Changes in interest rates or demands by banks for repayment can then trigger financial crises. 

The spending on buildings is absolutely central to the financial problems faced by universities. It arises out of the marketisation process,  In a competitive market, where a section of that market has fees frozen, universities are desperately scrabbling for the remaining section of the market; namely international  undergraduate and postgraduate students (and to a lesser degree home postgraduate students). Management believe that expensive buildings are the way to attract such students. The ambitious building plans based on over-optimistic views of future student recruitment have created a debt crisis for the sector.

Marketisation has meant a transfer of costs of studying from the state, financed by general taxation, to the individual student.

Tuition fees were first introduced in England in 1998, starting at £1000 per year. Now, UK degree fees for 2023-24 are £9,250 for each year of study.  It is remarkable that this high level of tuition fees has not proved more of a barrier to student participation in higher education.  However, repayment of student loans is a burden over many years – up to 40  – and the threshold earnings at which former students have to start paying what is, in effect, an extra tax has recently been reduced. Of course, higher earners can repay their loans more quickly, so this is further emphasising that learning is for earning, and for the better-off, not for social benefit.

Although English university fees are some of the highest in the world, they have not been increased in line with inflation and the government has not bridged the gap. Since some costs for universities are rising, this creates financial pressures. At the same time, some universities have also spent heavily on building programmes and borrowed extensively to do so. Salaries for senior staff and numbers earning over £100,000 have also continued to increase – for example, the University of Portsmouth’s vice-chancellor received a pay rise of nearly £15,000 the while some staff face redundancy. This debt burden, together with high pay for some, and insecurity and below-inflation increases for most, is creating financial instability.

Within the post-92 university sector (institutions that were polytechnics or colleges of education before 1992) most of academic staff who are in a pension scheme belong to TPS (Teachers’ Pension Scheme).  Employer costs in this scheme has been increased by 5% in England and Wales, 3% in Scotland and 4% in Northern Ireland.  The government is at present funding this increased cost for schools and FE colleges, but has declined to fund it for Higher Education Institutions.  Their argument is that Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) are not ‘public sector’.  This means post-92 HEIs have to find the money for increases in employer contributions to TPS at a time when their income is often static.  Some of them are seeking to do this through job cuts.

No arts for the plebs

Along with job losses there is a loss of educational provision, with cuts and course closures.  This is affecting many areas, but particularly arts and humanities in post 92 universities.  At Edge Hill University students have circulated this petition to stop redundancies among Creative Arts lecturers. 

Why is this area particularly being cut?  Students with degrees in arts and humanities subjects find employment in many areas and arts, culture and leisure industries often contribute to the social and economic regeneration of ex-industrial cities.  It seems like the Conservative Government thinks these subjects are only for students in elite pre-92 universities, but not for the masses. 

We are seeing a reversal of trends towards widening participation in Higher Education. Public funding for creative and performing arts courses has been repeatedly cut, while Uni-Connect, which runs programmes aimed at widening access to higher education for those from disadvantaged backgrounds, has its funding reduced to a third of its 2020-21 budget, School students from areas of high deprivation are much less likely to go into higher education, more likely to drop out of university, and less likely to achieve a first or upper second class degree and move into highly skilled employment.

Attacks on contracts

For any group of workers, contractual protections around working hours, holidays and other limits on workload are important.  Within Higher Education, there are different levels of contractual protection. 

In the post-92 sector in England and Wales there is a national contract which specifies a maximum level of teaching hours per year (normally 550), a maximum number of teaching weeks per year (36) and which provides for annual leave and for some self-managed time for research, scholarship, and professional development.  Within pre-92 universities there is often less defined contractual protection, but local contracts may specify overall working and teaching hours and entitlement to research time and sabbaticals; most workers in pre-92 work far more hours than contracted, even where this is specified.

Contracts disputes at some universities such as Brighton and Sheffield Hallam suggest that employers may wish to reduce research time – which is anyway limited in post-92 – bring in worse conditions for new starters and increase teaching loads.  Teaching loads can also be increased in less obvious ways, such as reducing allowances for academic management roles, increasing the number of modules a lecturer teaches, reducing the hour allowance per module and through various changes in curriculum and mode of delivery.

 Almost all university research and increasing amounts of teaching are casualised – fixed-term, hourly paid, and even zero-hours contracts. ‘Early career’ academics are often on a succession of such contracts for decades. This short-termism makes it almost impossible to build a successful career path, and, again, restricts higher education to those from privileged backgrounds.

As staff are lost through voluntary severance programmes and redundancy at the end of fixed-term contracts, and as there are squeezes on institutional budgets, we are likely to see more of these attempts to increase workloads.

Attacks on the rate for the job

Employers are also trying to squeeze more out of staff by undermining the rate for the job.  In 2003 a national pay framework agreement introduced job evaluation into the Higher Sector, moved all staff within national bargaining onto a single pay spine and harmonised pay scales across pre-92 and post-92 universities.  Placement of staff on the pay structure was through job evaluation and through matching academic jobs to local role profiles, based on a national library of academic role profiles.

Within this structure, certain roles and responsibilities were defined as posts on either the main academic grade or on promoted grades. The HE single pay spine has points corresponding, for academic workers, to grades AC1-AC5 (post-92) and grades 6-10 (most pre-92 institutions). This agreement provided for all teaching in post-92 universities to be paid no lower than AC2/Grade 7

 Some pre-92 employers now want teaching on grade AC1/Grade 6, which would break their local pay framework agreements and the national agreement. A few institutions, notably Imperial College London, one of the wealthiest higher education institutions in the country, do not take part in national pay bargaining.  While there is a robust framework of national pay bargaining, such institutions are unlikely to pay below the national rates, but this could change with more extensive privatisation of the sector.

While the university employers wanted job evaluation when the pay framework was introduced in 2003, partly as a defence against equal value claims, they are now seeking to downgrade jobs and push responsibilities down the grading system. A national pay framework, negotiated between employers and unions across pre- and post-92, was a major achievement and these moves to weaken it must be resisted.

Rank and file organising and co-ordination

Since some of the attacks on contracts and on pay are attacks on collective agreements which were negotiated some time ago, it is important to educate and remind UCU members of the importance of defending these contracts and their contractual rights, refreshing understanding of these contracts on pay and working conditions.  It is also important to identify where employers have tried to undermine these contracts.

Some of this education work is being undertaken through grassroots initiatives with online meetings organised by branches and with speakers from branches where the contracts are under attack. The UCU Solidarity Movement has organised some of these meetings and is organising regular meetings of branches in dispute to share experiences and build support.

Industrial action

Workers in the Higher Education sector are facing serious attacks on jobs, educational provision, pay levels and workloads. As is often the case, university employers have selected periods immediately before vacations or during vacation periods to announce redundancies.  UCU has a meeting of its Special Higher Education Employment Sector Conference on 17tMay.  That meeting will be important in deciding how to organise the fight back.  This debate will also continue at UCU’s Congress in Bournemouth at the end of the month.

Some UCU branches are balloting for industrial action over job cuts and attacks on contracts.  Some have been able to use live ballots in negotiations.  Industrial action is necessary in the context of the employer offensive.  However, UCU needs to find ways to fight back collectively and not only branch by branch.  This means effective, co-ordinated, nationwide action not only to defend pay but also to stamp out casualisation, abolish excessive workloads, and end the appalling inequalities in pay and conditions in the HE sector.

A political and educational struggle – defend the services we want to transform

In addition to the necessary industrial action, there is a need for a political and educational struggle.  In the forthcoming General Election, UCU must demand adequate funding of post-16 education, the lifting of the funding burden from students and abolition of tuition fees.  The demand for abolition of tuition fees was supported by the Labour Party in the 2017 and 2019 general elections.  It was abandoned last year by Keir Starmer.

The union must also, along with other unions, campaign for the repeal of all anti-trade union laws, since these laws undermine the capacity of unions to fight back.  UCU has at times faced ballot results where an overwhelming majority of those voting have voted for action, but turnout was just below the 50% threshold. This direct attack on our right to strike must be removed as one of the first acts of an incoming Labour government.

UCU should also revive debates about the purpose of education, democracy and collegiality in university governance, and the need to kick the market out of education.  The Convention for Higher Education should be reconvened to bring together those who want to save Higher Education from the disasters of marketisation.  UCU can be most effective if it combines the industrial, educational and political struggles.

As trade unionists have said in many countries, we need to fight to defend the services we want to transform.

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Alex Bridger is a UCU representative and Senior Lecturer in Social and Community Psychology at Leeds Beckett University.

Andy Kilmister is a member of Oxford Brookes UCU and a delegate from that branch to Oxford and District Trades Council

Liz Lawrence is a past President of UCU and active in UCU Left.

Philip Inglesant is a member of London Retired Members' UCU branch and formerly of Oxford University UCU

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