Redundancy in universities

(written before The Open University began its extensive voluntary severance programme in 2018, but with a few relevant additions in italics…)

It’s déjà vu all over again…

I had a bad case of déjà vu this week, as the universities of Manchester, Aberystwyth and Sunderland announced job cuts. I went through this at Reading in 2010 and it was why I left to take up a position at the Open University. More on that in a moment. There may not be one common reason for the current round of cuts; Brexit has been mentioned but also denied as responsible, and a reduction in the number of 18 year-olds has also come up. In the Aberystwyth case, a UNISON rep has also cited ‘poor decisions taken by the senior management over a number of years’, and I don’t know enough about the Welsh situation to know whether their universities are particularly at risk after Brexit. I note that, like the Reading experience in 2010, this is happening between REFs (last one 2013: anticipated next one, 2020), and I suspect there’s a pattern here. The next stage will, on past form, involve taking industrial action, and organising petitions. It gives you something to do, but I’m not convinced it has any effect at all. Petitions seem more appropriate if a whole department is being erased, but where it’s a matter of setting ‘pools’ (e.g. all those in a department; all those with a particular job title; all those in a sub-specialism of the subject) and then selecting from those pools the people to go, a petition doesn’t feel right. It’s not a matter of ‘Save Film Studies’ if the intention is to continue the department/subject but with fewer staff.

People who work in normal places – I would never describe universities as normal – know all about redundancy, voluntary severance and re-applying for one’s own job. There’s no reason why universities should be exempt from these horrors, as they are just as likely as any other businesses to make bad investments or to fail to notice a social change (although, to be frank, I’d have thought projections of the number of 18 year-olds would be on the agenda at high-level strategy meetings!). Somehow, though, when it happens, university staff find it more alarming. For academics, I think this is because the job is so much part of a person’s identity; and this isn’t surprising after spending three years getting a degree, a year on a Master’s programme, three years or more doing the PhD and then several years on research fellowships or temporary teaching roles before – if you are really ‘lucky’ – reaching a permanent post. For support staff, well, I remember from Reading how the university picked up excellent staff from redundancy programmes at other local employers, and maybe a university wrongly feels larger and thus safer than other businesses. Or maybe it feels more collegial and supportive; well, that would be a mistake!

Avoiding redundancy

Universities don’t like the negative publicity of redundancies. Would you support your student daughter or son going to a university where academic staff had just been made redundant? Would you be concerned that the course which looks so promising may haemorrhage staff to the point where module choices no longer exist or your child has to transfer elsewhere to complete their degree? ‘In teach-out’ is the university-speak for a course which is no longer taking new applicants and where staff are working hard to find jobs elsewhere before their current posts come to an end – meaning that those who are left will be those who can’t find an escape route, for whatever reason. Universities must have a procedure to handle these situations – here’s one example – because it does happen.

In order to avoid redundancies, universities work very hard to achieve job losses by voluntary severance. Doing a quick search, I discovered that Durham University is currently offering this, although not to those who have been issued with notice of redundancy. After I first published this post, The Open University announced from April 2018 an ’employee led voluntary severance scheme’ aimed at all central academic and support staff. Whether or not applications are accepted will depend on a ‘risk assessment’ on the possible damage from losing the applicant. When Reading put the entire department of Classics at risk of redundancy in 2010 in order to lose two posts, we were told that it was unlikely that such redundancies would ever happen because people always take voluntary severance. And indeed, that was the case; two people took the money. At the same time, I also left of my own free will (and I wasn’t the only member of my department who applied for the Open University job) and was replaced, and the department has since made new appointments.

Surviving the process

Despite the no-redundancy outcome, however, at Reading we all had to go through the redundancy process. This meant some very unpleasant meetings with HR, where they read us the formal statements and issued us with the redundancy notices. I felt physically sick throughout these. I’d worked hard during my years at Reading; it felt like a slap in the face, and it didn’t help that one member of the HR department had a silly grin on her face in these very grim formal meetings. Clearly she had more to laugh about than we did. No matter how much people tried to persuade me that I was very unlikely to be selected for redundancy, it still felt possible. Probably that’s a personality-thing, maybe also a gender-thing; a male colleague was completely relaxed and insisted he would never be made redundant, so he wouldn’t waste his time doing the required CV (in a special format – which made more work…) and required two-page document on ‘What I can offer to Reading’. Or, perhaps, he’d received assurances from someone higher up the food chain?

But I did work on those documents, because I was really worried that I would lose my job. Out of interest, I searched my files and found that I still have that two-page document. I’m not going to bore you with the really embarrassing show-off bits but here’s most of the first two paragraphs to give you the feel:

My contribution to academic excellence in the university should be clear from my CV. I study a highly distinctive topic, ancient medicine and its uses in the subsequent history of medicine into the twentieth century. I form part of the departmental research themes of ‘Language Text and Power’, ‘Negotiating Knowledge’ (which I convene) and ‘Appropriating Antiquity’. My interests also fit in the Early Modern Research Centre, of which I am a member. I was appointed to the university on Wellcome Trust funding and since then have developed and extended my international reputation. [quotes from comments on my work by reviewers] I have co-edited a major international journal for OUP (Social History of Medicine) and served on major funding bodies (Wellcome Trust and AHRC), including as Chair. My entry for RAE 2008 included two monographs.
However, I am not only a world authority on ancient medicine and its reception; I also take teaching very seriously, and regularly attract large numbers to my modules on ancient and Renaissance medicine, in addition to teaching on the ‘bread and butter’ modules in my department. In my new module CL2HM, being taught this term, I have responded to the School Teaching&Learning Plan’s request to use non-examination modes of assessment; it is assessed by two pieces of coursework. I am not going to give qualitative comments from my student evaluations; these are uniformly enthusiastic, but I do not believe that student applause is necessarily an indication of high quality teaching. Nor are module results, as these depend to some extent on the quality of students taking the module. Copies of evaluative student questionnaires are available to the Committee if it wants to read them.

You get the sense: key words like ‘international’ and indeed ‘world’; evidence of taking on board the School initiatives (yawn) rather than doing what I personally felt best; bit of sniffiness about quoting a lot of students saying ‘this is fab’.

Reading this through brought back to me very clearly the darkness of that period in my life. Because I’m not someone who gives up, I became one of the two department reps talking to the unions and the management, which meant yet more grim meetings as we challenged the rationale given by the management. I think I knew all along that nothing would change their decision. The platitudes from HR were much the same as in a more recent round of redundancies at Reading, on the lines of ‘I realise that this is an unsettling time for many of you’, wording which doesn’t convince when it comes from a secure and well-paid head of HR.

What can I say from my experience to those who are going through all this? Having fought, I would say ‘Don’t bother’. It doesn’t have any effect other than to make you feel you tried. Maybe that’s what you want, but there are better ways of spending your time. I would also say ‘Start looking for other jobs now’ because, even if you are not made redundant, you may well feel that your job no longer feels worth havling. If you are in a position to do so, I’d say ‘Take the money and run’. By all means hang on a bit and haggle, because there will come a point when most universities are so desperate to avoid the negative publicity of redundancies that they will increase the financial offer. However, if they’ve made it public that they are using redundancies to restructure, there may be less chance of such an increase. And finally I’d say ‘It’s just a job’. It isn’t your whole identity, no matter how much the often-toxic world of higher education tries to insist that it is!


3 thoughts on “Redundancy in universities

  1. Thanks for the article. The 2010/11 redundancies were mainly in response to “Austerity”, but then the 2012 tripling of tuition fees kicked in and the sector went into expansion overdrive (especially new buildings, not so much new permanent staff).
    I think the major reason redundancy is stressful for academics is less to do with identity, and more to do with the fact that the academic may have no idea what else they can do outside of the academia, particularly those in the Humanities. What would a recently redundant 45 year old Senior Lecturer in eighteenth-century history be able to do next?
    Future redundancies may take the form of clipping and snipping rather than shutting down whole departments (although if the whole business model collapses, individual institutions may have to shut or merge).
    What an ungodly mess UK HE has become.


    1. Indeed. I think the sense of one’s identity may be interlinked with the lack of ideas/opportunities to do other things when academia lets you down. ‘I’m an academic’ can feel very different from ‘I teach; assess evidence; research; write; appoint, counsel and manage staff; develop and apply policies…’ Maybe a comparable example, in terms of the different things the job entails and the sense of some overriding identity would be ‘I’m a parish priest’.

      The clipping and snipping method of cutting posts also massively increases the pressure on those who are left to pick up the pieces.


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