As lecturers join medical staff, rail and postal workers, teachers and many others in striking for inflation-proof pay rises, managers at UEA have responded with sackings, reports Mark Walmsley
In their communications with staff, management at University of East Anglia (UEA) have sought to blame the gaping hole in the university’s finances on “external factors”. Some of these are misleading. UEA points to rising energy costs, but leaves out that they fixed their energy prices at the peak of the recent crisis. Others are insulting. It is an apparent shock to university management that staff costs might increase during a cost-of-living crisis. Some are credible. Whilst few think students should be taking on even more debt in student loans, the failure to mitigate the impact of tuition fee freezes has resulted in a shortfall in real terms income. None of these factors, however, are unique to UEA. Having recently informed staff that it will defer the most recent pay award and abandon its commitment to the real living wage, the university is clearly in a situation quite unlike that of other HEIs – at least for now.
Serious questions need to be asked about why UEA’s management failed to take any action to arrest three successive cycles of under-recruitment and why this inaction was tolerated by the university’s governing council. We also deserve answers about how UEA will escape its current financial woes, answers that should not rely on hundreds of us losing our livelihoods. Any recovery plan, however, will have to contend with the real external factors that have led us here, namely the marketisation of HE. Having grown considerably as an institution since the decision in 2014 to remove the caps on student numbers, UEA’s current financial crisis makes it the ideal poster child for the perils of embracing sector marketisation.
Fuelled by a belief that growth was assured, UEA management ignored early warning signs that the university was falling foul of the market forces it embraced. Indeed, such was the belief that the “market would provide” that the (now former) vice-chancellor rejected the idea of bringing back student caps as recently as 2022. It is hard to fathom how, two years into a recruitment crisis that would soon cost hundreds of his employees their jobs, Professor Richardson could continue to support policies that have done such harm to our sector. And yet he is hardly the only VC that has embraced market ideology in HE to the detriment of their staff and students.
Those that rush to defend the coalition government’s decision to remove student caps would do well to remember the motivations behind it. Billed as a way to widen participation to higher education, the policy was actually a direct response to the increasing number of privileged, privately educated students being turned away from the institutions that they used to dominate. With The Spectator praising the policy in 2020 for ensuring that “universities can enrol bright kids from Sunderland without turning away lavishly educated ones in Surrey”, Conservatives have barely attempted to hide the lie. Indeed, an early policy proposal floated in 2011 made it quite clear that they felt it legitimate for the sons and daughters of the wealthy to bypass student caps by purchasing a place at selective institutions at an inflated price. Whilst that proposal generated righteous indignation, what we have ended up with is a system under which the monied elite have maintained their dominance of certain universities without even having to pay for the privilege.
Having recently called for our national officers to investigate and campaign for the return of a system of student caps, the UEA branch of UCU is acutely aware of the volatility that the “market” in HE has introduced to our sector. Indeed, having benefited considerably from growing student numbers until 2020, the current crisis at UEA is a cautionary tale that even the market “winners” are not assured of endless or continued success. The idea of “winners” and “losers” might make the right wing of the Tory party salivate as they talk of letting universities “go to the wall”, but the reality is a sector wracked by volatility and increasingly engaged with concerns that have little to do with our mission as institutes of higher learning.
Without the capacity for long-term planning and security, universities like ours are now facing the awful reality of mass job loss. For the “winners”, the spoils are mass casualisation and precarity, with a proliferation of short-term contracts and growing classrooms that result in higher workloads and burnout. Action is needed now at UEA to save jobs, but action in Parliament is needed if we are to return stability and security to the sector as a whole. Will Labour pick that fight? We can hope so, but how many of us will still be here by the time they do?