This paper was kindly contributed by staff at the University of Leeds.
It is the fifth in our series titled ‘Manifestos for Change’, in which we are seeking forward-thinking responses to the present Covid-19 crisis, and the crisis of marketisation more generally. If you have created a similar proposal for your institution, and would like it to be included in this series, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The University of Leeds is facing a significant financial crisis due to the drop in international student recruitment and the reported reluctance of many ‘home’ students to return to campus, in the wake of the (on-going) Covid-19 crisis.
Ultimately, the precarious situation of the University is the result of the increasing marketisation of higher education, as a result of which education has become a commodity to be bought by those who can afford it. This dependency on the ‘student market’ now undermines the viability of provision at our university. The University of Leeds has become especially vulnerable to these events because of the focus we have placed on high levels of international student recruitment.
We believe in a University without borders where students and staff are welcome from all around the world, but where international students are not treated as a financial resource, and sustainable recruitment plans are promoted instead.
We believe the University must respond to this crisis with a robust plan to ‘weather the storm’ while, in the longer term, addressing some of the features of our higher education system that have exposed the University to these risks. What is vital at this critical stage is to respond as a University community and to avoid short-term responses that risk causing irreparable damage to morale and capacity. We are particularly concerned that any resort to an immediate ‘spending freeze’ and redundancies (including compulsory redundancies) as well as non-renewal of fixed term and other casualised contracts will extend into the longer term and have devastating consequences for early career staff and those seeking academic careers, similar to what was last seen in the 1980s.
The crisis has shown that academic and other staff at the University need to be fully involved in decision-making and have collective ownership of it.
Given the current crisis we propose the following 5-point plan:
1. The University should draw on appropriate financial resources (reserves and borrowing) to minimise the short and medium term impact of the crisis.
The specific nature of the pandemic makes it likely that the financial impact experienced by the University will be relatively short term. Given its generally sound financial position we urge the University to recognise the need for specific short-term support and to commit to using reserves or borrowing as necessary to tackle the problems we face. Maintaining morale and capacity will ensure the University is well placed to recover as the sector emerges from the immediate impact of the pandemic.
Alongside the commitment to invest through the downturn in income the university must also work closely with the wider sector to immediately lobby government for emergency support for higher education (likely to be one of the sectors hardest hit by the pandemic) and for a student recruitment cap, which needs to be lower than the currently envisaged 5% increase on previous numbers in order to protect the sector as a whole (unless the total student body grows by a similar proportion). The proposals all seem to be within the bankrupt neoliberal framework for HE which is failing before our eyes are in a crisis period that we’ve not seen in our lifetimes.
2. Open up governance – based on principles of collegiality and democratic decision-making:
- Restore and revitalise Senate’s role as the key decision-making body, and reduce the proportion of Senate who are members ex officio by virtue of senior managerial positions;
- Restore collegiality at Faculty and School level, with key decisions relating to budgets and appointments discussed openly with, and subject to endorsement by, the body of academic staff in Faculty or School meetings;
- Institute systems which will re-establish a formal role for local and regional public bodies in the University’s governance (including but not limited to Senate, Council and Court).
3. Full transparency of financial accounts and planning with financial decisions, which have significant academic implications, to be shared with the campus unions and to be debated and voted on at Senate.
4. Support for staff
- Guarantee continuing employment for at least the academic year 2020/2021 for all currently casually employed colleagues or staff on fixed-term contracts ending before the start of the next academic year;
- Immediately stop any outsourcing plans, which are part of the increasing marketisation of HE;
- We anticipate that moving to online or blended learning will be expensive to deliver at the proper level of quality and will need newly-appointed staff. We call for an end to the freeze on posts to meet student expectations of high-quality education;
- We need to distinguish between the introduction of online teaching as a contingent response to the health crisis, to protect staff and students’ health and safety, and the development of blended learning across university programmes as a longer term pedagogical strategy. Future plans including online teaching and blended learning must be developed with teaching staff rather than enforced from above without consultation; similarly workload hours implications must be carefully considered and negotiated and suitable training provided.
- Online interactive learning should be privileged when it is possible whilst respecting staff working time and care duties, since too many pre-recorded classes remove the critical learning that is made possible by the exchange of ideas between staff and students, and among students. A public university as a space of critical analysis and overall student development to empower the citizens of the future requires in-person learning.
- Changes to the curriculum or reduction in the number of modules offered must involve full consultation with relevant staff.
- Immediately stop attempts to divorce research from teaching and instead acknowledge their mutual inter-dependence.
- Reverse the career-damaging decision to freeze promotions processes. This freeze arbitrarily and unfairly devolves the costs of COVID to junior categories of staff.
We recognise that the university needs to find savings, but we believe that this can be approached via alternative means. However, we do not believe that ordinary higher education staff should be induced to take voluntary pay cuts or hours reduction, which will have the effect of intensifying workload and compounding the effect of cumulative pay erosion and inequalities.
5. Establish a Commission on future of the University of Leeds as a public university;
With involvement from a broad range of local, national and international stakeholders, now is a time to ‘reset’ – to fundamentally review our role as an institution and to renew the traditional concept of the university – as a public good, based on public service values, academic freedom and democratic governance.
We believe that a bold commitment by the University to use its reserves (and if necessary to borrow) and invest, offers the best prospect of helping the University successfully navigate the current crisis. Such an approach involves a collective response by the University to maintain quality provision through a strong commitment to all the staff of the institution, especially those whose employment is often precarious. This is an opportunity to reverse the spread of casualisation in our sector and develop long term and sustainable staff planning based on employment security, staff wellbeing and high quality education.
In the longer term we believe the sector must seize the moment and fundamentally reassess the role and purpose of higher education as an essential part of a public democratic space. The University of Leeds can, and should, play a leading role in shaping that debate.
Vicky Blake UCU President
Ben Plumpton UCU Branch President, Library