Developing a way forward for a post Covid-19 future: A manifesto for change from the University of Manchester

This Manifesto for Change from the University of Manchester was kindly contributed to the CDBU blog. We would like to invite universities from across the UK to contribute similar accounts.

To download the full manifesto as a pdf, click here.

A manifesto for change from the Campaign for Better Governance at the University of Manchester

The Covid-19 pandemic poses multiple challenges to the University in terms of its finances, the security of employment of staff, delivery of high-quality teaching, research and governance. 

Effective and collegial governance is more important now than ever before. It is the only means by which the University can come together in a shared enterprise in difficult times. This requires more than visions and slogans. It needs a governance structure with transparent processes, working relationships and behaviours that promote meaningful engagement and consultation: a willingness to discuss and come to a joint approach. Only with good governance can we ensure that decisions taken put our people first, because the University is its people. It exists for the long term – founded in 1824 we have weathered two world wars, a global flu pandemic, multiple economic crashes, the last barely a decade old.  The essence of our university is that we are accountable to the past and the future, not simply or even primarily to the present. We cannot just be defined by the results in the next quarter.  

We need to entrench genuinely collective, consultative and mutually respectful working practices, and set aside the top-down approach of previous years that has left staff isolated, alienated, and fearful. We need to be able to have trust in those who have been given the responsibility to lead, and to know that that leadership is held properly to account. Worryingly, there is talk of job losses, beginning with teaching and research staff on fixed-term and other precarious contracts, but possibly also compulsory redundancies of permanent staff. There is no mention of possible alternatives, or of careful, deliberative assessments about who should bear the financial sacrifices. The administrative centralisation that has been a hallmark of the current Senior Leadership Team (SLT) has come at a serious cost to the university’s sense of community. 

We acknowledge that the fall in income will require significant adjustments. The SLT are considering a range of possible measures and some of these are sensible. They have included a pause on capital projects where feasible, voluntary pay cuts and reduction in hours and deferring all promotions and increments. 

The real test of whether the University of Manchester is a collegial community of students, scholars and researchers, rather than a business enterprise primarily interested in the bottom line, will be the extent to which decisions that are made are transparent, fair, and negotiated with staff. We have the structures of School Boards and Faculty Committees and a Senate which should be meaningfully engaged and involved (together with our campus trade unions) in setting out the principles under which very difficult decisions will need to be made.  

Finances: How can the University of Manchester SLT manage its deficit in 2020-21 so as to avoid compulsory redundancies which would weaken the institution? 

  • The SLT are working on the basis of a possible 15-25%, £160-270 million, fall in total University income. We are not told the predicted net loss after savings and any operating surpluses are carried forward.
  • The University’s “financial briefing” focuses on the operating position and barely mentions the balance sheet. Now is the time to use the University’s financial reserves and borrowing power responsibly to get the University through to the other side of the present crisis.
  • The University could cover half the deficit from reserves: taking up to £100 million from reserves is reasonable when in July 2019 the University had £1284 millions of unrestricted reserves and £203 million of cash and short-term investments in current assets available within one year; the University drew on reserves to contribute £150 million to the USS deficit recovery plan in 2018-2019. 
  • The other resource is borrowing to cover next year’s deficit, which of course does put a burden on future years. The July 2019 accounts show a bond of £294 million due in 2053 and unsecured loans of £100 million due in 2046. In the present crisis, it is good to see in the financial briefing that the University is exploring short term loans. 
  • In the interests of transparency, SLT should provide a breakdown of the current assets and relevant considerations, such as the cash buffer necessary to maintain credit rating; a detailed list of possible savings that will be made from non-wage costs; supplemented by a table itemising the savings which could be made by cancelling parts of the upcoming investment in the estates programme; the timeframe to return to a break-even, then operating surplus post 2020-21. 

The threat of compulsory redundancy has in the past damaged staff trust in management. It would send a much stronger signal if the University committed to use a range of options like using our reserves and additional borrowing amongst other measures to avoid compulsory redundancy.

Reductions in wage costs will be important in covering the other half of the deficit and they should first be addressed by a package of voluntary rather than compulsory measures. The announced voluntary severance scheme should be enhanced to include a transparent process of commitment to reduced pay and workload, which is progressively tapered so that higher-paid staff shoulder the brunt. Workload allocation could be re-configured to offer imaginative ways of flexible working. The understanding should be that those who make sacrifices now (e.g. hours reduction) should clearly be entitled to return on pre-Covid terms and conditions when the immediate crisis is over. 

Exceptional times call for exceptional actions. Is it really better to fund anticipated deficits with compulsory redundancies than to use our balance sheet and voluntary adjustments in wage costs?   

How can the University of Manchester take a leadership in brokering the system wide response? 

If many individual institutions respond to revenue shortfall and eliminate deficits by restructuring with compulsory redundancy, the UK university system will implode in mass sackings which would erode the system’s human capital and destroy the sector’s international reputation.  

In the UK, the Department of Education and the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy has to be pressed, including by the Russell Group, to find a way of damage limitation through system wide action on the revenue and cost side. These could include:

  • Revenue support from central government in the form of long-term loans, as with the various Treasury loans to corporates in the private sector;
  • Agreement between employers and unions for a temporary employers’ pensions holiday which at the University of Manchester would save £100 million in one year with a clear plan to make good over several years; 
  • Financial support for government and charitable research funding bodies to ensure costed extensions to paused research and recovery of costs incurred.

Maintaining the research capability of the University of Manchester

Research is a key asset and strength of this university, and is particularly at risk because research activity and research funding are being directly affected; UoM and other institutions are adopting a “teaching first” approach – for example deferring study leave to release staff time so that they can teach (and cover the work that might otherwise have been done by GTAs).  

Precarity of employment is a problem across the university but is a particular issue in research with the majority of research staff on fixed term contracts tied to external research grant funding.  So, the university should be seeking to protect its investments in research activity, capacity and capability:

  • Key actions would be to protect the most vulnerable research staff – those on fixed term contracts ending in 2020 or 2021, giving some bridging funding, seeking maximum flexibility from research funders in the use of grants to facilitate this, and seeking costed extensions from funders for research that has been adversely affected by the closedown.
  • In view of the pressures on academic staff time due to online teaching, as well as the difficulties in conducting research,  it must be made explicit that “research expectations” for 2020/21 will be reduced: this is particularly crucial for probationary staff, who may be prevented from reaching their original research objectives. 
  • Initially, attention has focused on managing the implications for UG and PGT students, but PGR students must be supported, with extensions if necessary and access to discipline-specific advice and support beyond the supervisory team. For all research activity, robust IT infrastructure is crucial.
  • In the slightly longer term, we should be thinking about how poorly prepared the institution was for an economic shock like this, and planning our research strategy for the future to provide a greater cushion against variations in income.

Teaching and Learning

We need to ensure that teaching and learning is properly resourced – online learning frequently requires a reassessment of curricula so that material can be delivered in a format that is suitable for this medium. In the interest of delivering high-quality blended teaching, staff should also be properly trained and supported, and given sufficient time and IT resources to adapt their teaching. 

Online teaching is not a low-cost solution – online learning almost always requires additional staff to provide support to students to ensure engagement in fora, interaction with each other and academic staff. Consideration needs to be given to develop innovative solutions:

  • All academic and PS staff, including those on the SLT and those on Faculty and School administration, should be redeployed as far as possible to help the University on the frontline of teaching and learning. Delivering high quality online learning which is truly integrated with our curricula and which provides an interactive blended learning where students learn from each other and their teachers is what should distinguish the offering from Manchester University. 
  • As many decisions as possible about teaching and learning should be made at the School or Discipline level where local expertise lies. Top-down management from the SLT or from Faculties without proper consultation of academic and PS staff is only likely to unsettle staff and students further. All such changes to teaching and learning are temporary and should be reviewed across the academic year by Senate, School Boards and Faculty Committees. Fundamentally it is the role of Senate to preserve the curriculum and oversee the delivery of high-quality teaching and research.

Conclusions: the way forward

 A crisis like the coronavirus pandemic reveals the underlying truths and values of any organisation.   This crisis is a profound challenge to us all, not just to the leadership team of the university, but to everyone.  What really matters to us, what do we really care most about, and how do we treat and value our colleagues, our students, and our university?  We hope that this manifesto can provide some common ground and can help to bring us all together.


Aneez Esmail Professor of General Practice

Karel Williams Professor of Accounting and Political Economy

Kieran Walshe Professor of Health Policy and Management

Linda Davies Professor of Health Economics

Philippa Browning Professor of Astrophysics