Serious Cuts and Stark Choices at Aberdeen


The University of Aberdeen is attempting to cut £10.5 million from its expenditures for the 2015-16 academic year, and they are starting with faculty and staff. It aims to cut 150 positions, according to an email sent to faculty and staff from new Senior Vice Principal Jeremy Kilburn, provided to me from a source at the university who prefers to remain anonymous. The same email gives faculty the following offer:

The voluntary severance scheme is available now for a period of sixteen weeks until 10 July 2015 and offers the opportunity for early retirement, voluntary severance or a combination of both.  On the basis of staff leaving the university by 31 July 2015 the terms available are:
EITHER
a) voluntary severance on the basis of one month’s salary for each year of continuous service at the University of Aberdeen up to a maximum of one year’s salary;
OR
b) early retirement with the option of enhancement subject to a financial limit equivalent to a maximum of one year’s salary.

The email does not specify what will happen if an insufficient number of faculty and staff volunteer for the program. My correspondent writes:

if it does not reach that [£10.5 million] figure (and, clearly, it is very unlikely to happen), I guess the plan is to opt for compulsory redundancies [i.e., firings], targeting in particular staff from those Schools and Departments that don’t share or meet the criteria imposed by the University ‘vision’ – as they call it. Several Departments within the Humanities will be the natural first targets of the compulsory redundancy proposal.

Of course the University is trying to be cautious, avoiding giving details of what would happen if the goal were not met within the next few months. But they wouldn’t have sent this email if they were not sure about where to go. The University is in financial trouble and this needs to be fixed. The way university administrators think is best is to get rid of some academic staff members – especially those who don’t share the ‘University Vision’! I think that if this is the plan it is outrageous – and there should be discussion of this within academia in order to prevent it.

The Senior Vice Principle concludes the email by saying that “We will do the very best we can to maintain and develop those areas which are essential for our moving us towards our shared vision of a competitive research led and distinctive university with a student experience of outstanding quality.”

UPDATE: An email was sent by the University and College Union (UCU) a few days ago, including the following:

On Friday 20th March Aberdeen UCU were called to a meeting with the new Senior Vice-Principal, Prof Jeremy Kilburn, HR Director, Mrs Debbie Dyker, and other campus trade unions to be told of a paper on voluntary severance going to Court on Tuesday 24th March. The paper also made provision for the use of compulsory redundancies if the savings target of £10.5 million in 2015/16 was not met – this equates to 150 senior lecturer posts.  Court did not give approval on all components of the paper, in particular they did not approve the recommendation for compulsory redundancies.  University management still anticipate launching a voluntary severance scheme and are currently finalising the details. We will keep you posted.

What this message reveals is that the administration does indeed plan to fire people if the voluntary scheme does not work. The university court rejected this plan, but my correspondent reports that it is believed that the administration will resubmit it and that it will get approved.

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Colin Farrelly
5 years ago

I am saddened to learn about the financial troubles of Aberdeen University. I started my academic career 16 years ago when, fresh out of graduate school, I landed my first job teaching in the department of philosophy at Aberdeen. The dept was housed in the “Old Brewery” and we had an active and very collegial group of philosophers. I recall fondly how bright and engaged the students were, and how much they loved doing philosophy.

The “vision” of Aberdeen University that existed when I was there in 1999 was an intellectually engaged vision of higher education. And Philosophy was considered an integral part of that vision. I hope the current administration’s plans don’t erode that credible vision by targeting philosophy for short-term financial savings.Report

anonymous
anonymous
5 years ago
Rober
Rober
5 years ago

I quote from the site above: “Jeremy Kilburn may or may not be missed at Queen Mary, but his departure demonstrates a blatant unaccountability, especially given how many scientists saw their careers derailed or destroyed because of his decisions. Before receiving news of how the faculty he led was assessed, Jeremy departs.”
I wonder why Aberdeen University made him Senior Vice Principal (?!)Report

Jonathan Ichikawa
5 years ago

I have also read the email Justin quotes from here. (I was recently employed by the University of Aberdeen, but ceased to be one earlier this year, so I didn’t receive it myself, but someone still working there forwarded it to me.) I am particularly stunned by the tone and content of its opening:

“Through the development of our new Strategic Plan we have created a shared vision that is bold and ambitious and aims to build on our areas of strength in order to grow our position as one of the world’s leading universities. The next phase of the Strategic Plan will require us to work together to identify how all areas of the University will contribute to the vision, and to identify the strategic investments needed to ensure its future success and sustainability. To be able to do this it is essential that we remain financially strong and stable. We need to generate the funds to allow necessary investments in infrastructure, the student experience and academic endeavours and we need the flexibility to react to challenges that we are bound to face in the next few years and take advantage of new opportunities.”

From here, it goes on to observe that the major obstacle to the University’s bold and ambitious strategic plan is the faculty it employs:

“At present our staff costs are 59.5% of our overall budget against a sector average of 53.3%. This means that we have less flexibility to react to new challenges and opportunities compared to other higher education institutions. We need to redress this if we are to maintain and grow our position in an increasingly competitive international market. Thus it is clear that we must reduce our staffing costs if we are to be able to make the investment we need to deliver our new Strategic Plan.”

I am not privy to the details of the University’s ‘Strategic Plan’, but I confess I am at a loss to see what possible appropriate University strategy doesn’t rely on a strong academic faculty.

The timing of all of this with respect to the REF certainly raises questions, too.Report

Fanis
5 years ago

Thank you for the reference to my blog above. Here is another summary source of information with good links http://www.labtimes.org/editorial/e_328.lasso

There was trust initially to the new “leadership” at Queen Mary. Such confidence played a part in the destruction by means of restructuring (restruction) of that university (the consequences are still unfolding). I hope colleagues in Aberdeen will be better informed and prepared to participate in governance decisions, question and resist management.

Kilburn and Gaskell fired or drove away excellent Chemists from Queen Mary and instead returned themselves to the REF, with papers performed in other institutions for the most part and which would never qualify for any normal academic staff (link to the REF sites within https://fanismissirlis.wordpress.com/2015/02/09/sbcsrefresult/). One might think this ammounted to self promotion at expense of the University. Or there are other explanations, which at this time escape me. If there is alternative academic judgment, please bring it to my attention.Report

LS
LS
5 years ago

I know nothing about the particular situation at Aberdeen, which does seem bad indeed. I need, however, want to highlight two points that suggest to me that more of the facts need to be ascertained before panicking. (1) Does Scotland have mandatory retirement or not? If it does not, the incentivizing of retirement is a standard method of encouraging those who are near or beyond the customary retirement age to retire. It only works as an incentive, however, if the package is sufficiently sweet. I can’t tell whether this one is. It also only works if combined with a clear message that senior faculty leaving will allow for junior faculty to be hired, thereby ensuring the continuity of programs. Is the cost savings of senior faculty retirements going to result in new programs? (2) Aberdeen is a center of North Sea oil development, and no doubt gains a lot of revenue from that industry (as does Scotland). (See ‘Local Hero’). As those in resource economies know, the plummeting of oil prices has caused huge financial upheaval (see Alberta, Canada which announced a CAD 7 billion deficit yesterday). How much of this financial crisis at Aberdeen is due to matters related to oil revenue? How much is systemic? By asking these questions I do not at all mean to be defending the University’s actions, but the best and most effective response requires knowing more about context.Report

LS
LS
5 years ago

I posted my original comment prior to Jonathan Ichikawa’s which adds content. The first thing I was struck by was the relatively small percentage of budget that is staff related (and the relatively small difference between Aberdeen and the ‘sector’). At my University, we are told that over 90% of budget is salaries, and yet no one has been downsized (though they are trying to incentivize retirement and only replace faculty in ways that support enrolment). What we wouldn’t give for salaries comprising 59% of budget!Report

AberdeenFaculty
AberdeenFaculty
5 years ago

This is going ahead, despite the financial situation at the university: https://www.pressandjournal.co.uk/fp/news/aberdeen/521241/aberdeen-students-union-get-8million-makeover/Report

Furry Boots
Furry Boots
5 years ago

“At present our staff costs are 59.5% of our overall budget against a sector average of 53.3%. This means that we have less flexibility to react to new challenges and opportunities compared to other higher education institutions.”

Does it? If so, why? It’s hard to see what the argument here is meant to be, let alone whether it’s any good. Which seems very suspicious, although perhaps I’m just ignorant about the importance of flexibility and the degree to which it depends on staff costs. What are the other costs that allow for so much more flexibility?Report

Jack
Jack
5 years ago

I’ve read the article linked above. A passage says: “More than 1,000 students and university staff have already taken part in a survey on the future of the building.” I wonder who the consulted “university staff” are. I’m a staff member and I wasn’t consulted. I also wonder if the consulted student were informed of the financial problems of the University. (Perhaps someone from the AUSA President Emily Beever might want to clarify this point) The content of the article should be verified. I cannot believe that the University is spending £8 millions to revamp a building (if I correctly understand it) when, at the same time, is attempting to cut £10.5 million from its expenditures by eliminating about 150 teaching and research positions. Something is missing here.Report

Daniel Brunson
Daniel Brunson
5 years ago

I haven’t looked into this particular case, but customarily buildings are funded through bonds (basically, on credit against expected tuition), so while a conflict of values, not necessarily of economics. A U.S.-focused analysis:
http://www.newappsblog.com/2014/05/institutional-debt-and-the-crisis-of-us-higher-ed-again.htmlReport

WH
WH
5 years ago

I am afraid that the richness and sheer modesty of comment makes the dependence of Faculty upon Administration more and more obvious when decisions have to be made. Perhaps this only means that the balance between one function and another can only be restored if both give up their special claims to priority.
The missing element, of course is the good of the missing element, the UNIVERSITY as a quasi person, neither obedient to some outer good’s interests, such as a national or international reputation for the quality of its research, or some other good, and replace it with the existence of an intelligent and critical community, which is entered and left with a conscious decision on both sides, and to which students would be admitted at times and places which might be agreed by both sides. IgnotusReport