University Troubles

I noticed an article today in the Grauniad about a wave of redundancies about to hit English universities. Among those affected are the University of East London; Goldsmiths; and the University of London and the universities of Liverpool, Leeds, Leicester, Southampton Solent, Brighton. Dundee is also threatening redundancies (Higher Education is a devolved matter in the United Kingdom). There are probably many other institutions planning similar moves.

The University of Sussex, for example, has embarked on an ominous-sounding “Size and Shape” exercise that will probably lead to course and Departmental closures. “Restructuring” is the word being used. The Vice-chancellor of Sussex has refused to rule out compulsory redundancies, triggering a dispute with the Universities and Colleges Union UCU.

As regular readers will know I worked at the University of Sussex until the Summer of 2016 – was it really 5 years ago? – and when I left I was very optimistic about the future for the School of Mathematical & Physical Sciences of which I was Head. I haven’t really kept up with the details of what has been going on there but I’m not sure my optimism was well placed.

In late 2017 after I had started work here in Maynooth I wrote about my reasons for moving to Ireland. One of them was this:

My short exposure to a role in senior management, as Head of the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the University of Sussex, convinced me that I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life in a system that I felt had lost all sight of what universities are and what they are for.

I haven’t changed my mind.

Anyway the timing of this attack on university staff – during a global pandemic – is rightly described in the Guardian piece as “despicable”. University staff have worked themselves into the ground by putting in countless hours of unpaid overtime to keep teaching going during the time of Coronavirus restrictions and now many of them are to be rewarded with a hefty kick in the teeth.

It’s notable too that these decisions are going to be made before the outcome of the latest Research Excellence Framework (REF 2021) are announced. This makes me doubt that the motivation for these changes has anything to do with academic considerations. It seems much more likely to me that certain university leaders see the pandemic as an excuse to force through change while staff too exhausted to resist, using the opportunity to get rid of expensive courses and/or troublesome departments.

We don’t now whether there will be widespread restructuring of the University system in Ireland but I wouldn’t bet against it. Generations of Irish governments have copied the idiotic English approach to Higher Education. The President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins can see what’s coming. In a recent speech he highlighted the threats to academic freedom and breadth of teaching.

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