University cuts are a neoliberal smokescreen

As Scottish students leave university for the summer holidays, many will be wondering if their courses will still be around when they return in the autumn. Staff and students at British universities have been hit hard over the last few months with announcements of budget cuts. English universities received widespread coverage earlier in the year when the Government announced a 5% cut in public funding for higher education. Here in Scotland, the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) announcement of £1.12 billion for the country’s 20 universities in the next academic year actually translates after inflation into a 0.6% drop in funding.

The fact that this is a much smaller decrease than in England is small comfort for those on the receiving end of cuts. The Scottish Government has told universities to expect cuts of 3.2% per year for at least the next three years from 2011 onwards. Moreover, as the full impact of the recession hits and the winner of the General Election follows through on their commitment to ‘tackling the deficit’, which is predicted in include slashing Scotland’s budget, The Herald describes Scotland’s institutions as bracing themselves for losses of as much as 20% of their public funding.

For the moment, the SFC’s decision specifically means a 1.2% real-term cut in the budget of the University of St Andrews. A spokesman for the Uni was quoted in the Telegraph on March 25th as saying it was “assessing its implications for teaching and research”. More recently, in a May 2nd article on university expectations of deeper cuts after the General Election, The Herald quoted the University as calling the current climate “challenging” and that it was “currently assessing the full implications of the 2010 budget”.

It is entirely possible that these ‘full implications’ will over the next few months mean staff lay-offs, reducing or scrapping courses not considered ‘financially viable’, as well as the threat of restructuring of departments. I say this is entirely possible because it is precisely what has been happening at nearly every other Scottish university – before cuts to public spending on higher education were actually announced. Universities have been pre-empting public cuts by sacking staff, restricting intakes of new students and closing whole courses and programmes. The buzz-phrase on the lips of vice-chancellors is “efficiency savings”. The reality is staff and students being forced to pay for an economic crisis that they themselves did not create.

Pre-empting the axe: self-imposed cuts at Scottish universities

One university arguably hardest-hit by cuts is Strathclyde. Since its new Principal Jim McDonald arrived 18 months ago, the University has seen 140 redundancies at the same as the appointment of 3 bureaucrats with 6-figure salaries to administer a merger with Jordanhill. The University has decided to close both its German course and its BA in Applied Music and Community Arts. At the same time that these decisions were made Principal McDonald received a 9% pay rise on his £240,000 salary and spent £680,000 of University money on a new office suite for him and senior management. Strathclyde Uni also plans to sell off 40% of its campus, including its Union building, to property developers.

In the same city, the University of Glasgow is currently undergoing a ‘restructuring plan’ announced by its new Principal Anton Muscatelli. Despite reassurances to unions that this would not be a ‘cost-cutting’ exercise, the University’s response to a shortfall in teacher education funding has been to target staff members. With all departments under review, job cuts are now being considered across the university. Job cuts and a reduction in student numbers have already been announced in the Education Faculty, choices which Glasgow’s SRC insists are due to the Scottish Government’s decision to allow a drop in SFC funding for teacher training. Glasgow’s SRC President noted that the University “wanted to wait until plans were finalised to communicate with students” – so much for consultation then.

The Archaeological Research Division is also under threat after university officials put forward proposals for the unit’s closure, threatening some 24 jobs. The University is justifying this on the grounds that the research centre is not viable as it is not meeting department income targets. Other sources within the Uni, however, have argued such targets as “arbitrary” and do not represent losses for the University since all money generated is additional income. Further job cuts are proposed in three further Faculties: Biomedical and Life Sciences, Veterinary Medicine and Arts. All in all, unions believe at least 83 jobs are currently at risk.

The proposed time-scale of the cuts has been criticised by those working at the University. Professor Richard Cogdell of the Biomedical Research Centre argues the cuts “[have] not been thought through. We are trying to organise courses for the coming academic year for hundreds of new students, but we don’t know who will be here to teach them.”

While Glasgow Uni’s management has argued such drastic cuts are necessary due to “immediate cost pressures”, it has emerged that the University is forecasting a £6 million surplus for this financial year. The Uni management has stated this surplus will be reinvested in research and teaching; yet staff members such as Professor Cogdell have argued staff redundancies will force remaining academics to shift their focus from research to teaching, thus reducing the research profile of the University. So the reinvestment of the surplus into research at some departments will come at the same time that research is crippled in other departments thanks to University’s management decisions!

Cuts have also been announced at Dundee University. The Uni has variously hinted at “hard choices” regarding cuts, including cuts to jobs in “under-performing” areas. Already, the Uni’s English literature programme is to lose its renaissance literature course. Opening hours and staffing levels at University libraries have been cut, as has the provision of summer school access courses. More widely, as part of an aim of £4.3 million worth of savings in expenditure, four academic units and 3 control services (Library, Estates & Research) are to be targeted with cuts. All this was leaked to the press before staff and unions were informed. A report to the University Court stressed that university managers see the cuts as a springboard to a leaner, more focused university: “These proposals will lead to the identification of a need to reduce academic staff costs in the short term”. Unions such as UCU argue the cost of getting rid of people in the short-term makes little economic sense when more people will need to be employed in the long run. In addition, Dundee Uni actually received a 1.8% funding increase from the SFC.

Meanwhile at Aberdeen University, student places are to be cut by 18.4%, at a time when applications to Scottish universities has risen due to the recession by nearly a third. In terms of cuts, a University spokesperson has said Aberdeen is planning for a 15% drop in public funding. The threat of cuts to department budgets comes at the same time that Aberdeen’s outgoing Principal Sir Duncan Rice is receiving a 17% pay rise.

The University of Edinburgh has reflected similar levels of hypocrisy. Permanent staff at the Moray House education faculty have been sent redundancy warning letters, with 40 staff jobs at risk. At the same time, leaked documents suggest that the Uni will not use Government ‘transition funding’ for its intended purpose, that is to compensate for reductions in teacher training; the result of this misuse will be continued staff cuts. In addition, the Uni has revealed it is in talks with the Edinburgh College of Art over a possible merger. The Art College could become part of the University by 2012, a move which would inevitably bring with it redundancies.

Other Scottish universities – from Glasgow Caledonian to Abertay, Queen Margaret to Napier, Stirling to St Andrews – have announced they will be factoring public spending cuts into their future budget plans.

A financial necessity or a neoliberal opportunity?

Meanwhile in England, similar self-imposed cuts and the inevitable cuts to come are being interpreted as a necessary reaction both to an economic crisis and to an unsustainable financial model for universities. On June 10th the new Universities Minister David Willetts called the cost of hundreds of thousands of students’ degree courses “a burden on the taxpayer that had to be tackled”. Mr. Willetts blamed the previous New Labour government for fostering a dependency among universities on “an increasing flow of money from the Exchequer”, that is, “[an] assumption of ever-rising budgets”. To solve this problem, Willetts has called for “radical” and “fresh thinking” in higher education policy.

This talk of ‘new radical thinking’ serves to mask the fact that the promise of cuts and the policies being suggested in their wake represent the continuation of a decades-old ideological push to restructure universities along neoliberal lines.

While Mr. Willetts argues universities have become dependent upon rising budgets, UK spending on higher education and student support as a proportion of GDP has in fact failed to rise above the proportion spent in 1997 when New Labour came to power (http://www.ucu.org.uk/csrdocs/csrsection07.pdf: 5). Indeed, the UK continues to spend less on higher education as a proportion of its GDP than the OECD average. In 2002 the Association of University Teachers estimated that UK universities faced a budget shortfall of just over £2 billion for 2003/4 (http://www.ucu.org.uk/circ/aut/html/la7120.html). This is reflective of cuts to state expenditure on higher education since Margaret Thatcher’s administration. When universities asked how they were supposed to make up for this shortfall and under-funding, government replied: appeal to private industry. Thus, as I’ve covered elsewhere, universities offered up their services to the business community, in effect commercialising university research at the expense of the exploratory pursuit of knowledge.

These cuts to higher education budgets, justified by spurious talk of ‘tackling the deficit’, represent the latest effort to shove marketisation down the throats of university staff and students. Mr. Willetts has called on universities to “secure new funding streams” and innovate in order to “improve the quality of the students’ experience and improve the teaching” even as universities are forced to lay off staff and shut down departments. This notion of new funding streams echoes the language of New Labour’s own conclusions on ‘The Future of Higher Education’ in 2003, that universities should “raise their own funding, independent of government”. In fact universities have been forced to raise alternative funding for decades, inevitably leading them to promote commercially-beneficial teaching and research.

It is within this context that we should interpret Willett’s accusation that “[t]he system doesn’t contain strong incentives for universities to focus on teaching and the student experience, as opposed to research”. Willett’s call for universities to find alternative funding sources will only increase competition for research funding from the commercial sector. Meanwhile, cuts to university budgets and the staff lay-offs that follow will only put further pressures on the remaining academic staff. The net result of this will be further damage to both teaching and university experience. A ‘market-driven education system‘ is not the solution to universities’ woes; it is precisely the problem.

Anti-cuts networks and wider struggle

In response to these self-imposed cuts, new anti-cuts groups have emerged across the country. The Glasgow Uni Anti-Cuts Action Network has organised meetings and protests over the last few months, while the Glasgow branch of University and College Union (UCU) Scotland has voted in favour of a ballot on industrial action if university management hold on to their threat of job cuts. Strathclyde similarly has created an Anti-Cuts Action Network. On March 31st they carried out a march in opposition to cuts. Further north, the Aberdeen Defend Education Campaign occupied the headquarters of Aberdeen Uni’s Kings College for 48 hours, while lecturers there have also threatened to strike. Dundee now has an Anti-Cuts Action Network involving members of their students union and, working with the Dundee branch of UCU, has been staging meetings and protests in opposition to Dundee Uni’s ‘strategic review’, a review which has now been accepted by their University Court. At Edinburgh, the Uni’s Students Association has opposed cuts and organised a protest in January outside the Scottish Parliament.

Two aspects of these new anti-cuts groups are significant. Firstly, they have involved both staff and students. This is reflected in Britain more broadly, with many universities seeing students standing alongside striking staff members who then return the favour when those students are penalised by their universities for protesting against cuts. This is a crucial development if students are to avoid being labelled selfish for standing against, say, rises in tuition fees. We need to understand and articulate the fact that staff and students’ needs are only portrayed as being at odds because this reduces our collective bargaining power against neoliberal restructuring. In fact staff and students have shared interests which are best served by resisting marketisation. Such mutual solidarity is also, as Alex Callinicos rightly notes, potentially suggestive of a more participative and democratic higher education system.

Secondly, these groups have all been calling for more national coordination, both between anti-cuts groups and with other campaigns. There is now both a UK Education Activist Network and a National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts, the latter having evolved out of a convention that happened in February. More recently, staff and students were able to share stories and successes at an emergency conference of the Right To Work campaign held just after the general election. Participation in campaigns like this is crucial. Just as the concerns of academic staff and students are linked, so too are the concerns of those at universities and those in the rest of the public sector facing similar prospects of lay-offs and shut-downs in the wake of cuts. Staff and students have already showed their support on and off the picket-line for striking BA cabin crew members, whose fight for decent wages and working conditions continues. Anti-cuts groups, together with other workers, need to form a coherent narrative against public sector cuts: that cuts in public services equal increased unemployment, which equals reduced economic demand, which equals a deepening of the recession.

We also need to draw the links between the economic crisis and other issues dear to the Left. For example, the recession has been a boon to the British Army, which has seen a surge in enlistment as employment opportunities elsewhere dwindle. Army chiefs themselves have admitted this upsurge in recruitment is a direct result of the economic crisis – these new recruits are largely economic conscripts. As the new coalition government deems the war in Afghanistan one expenditure too important to the ‘national interest’ to be put under review, the right response to this development is to link the continued imperialist war and the continued economic war against working people. Anti-war and anti-cuts activists should together call for war & economic conscription to be replaced with reparations abroad & public investment at home.

Students certainly have a lot to consider over the summer. But rather than resign ourselves to the inevitability of cuts, we should use this time to build on the progress British student activists have made over the last few years, especially in the wake of the student occupations last year in protest at Israel’s assault on Gaza and our universities’ links to the Israeli occupation. The real radical thinking doesn’t lie with a government that seeks to keep neoliberalism alive. It lies with us.


Sadly, as predicted, the cuts have begun at St Andrews. Not only has the University scaled back plans for the refurbishment of its library, modern languages tutors now face redundancy. A senior source said the redundancy warnings "came completely out of the blue. It was a shock to all of the department." The move has been described by the University as part of a "restructuring" of its languages department.

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