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Universities: Compulsory Redundancies

Volume 813: debated on Monday 21 June 2021


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of (1) threats of compulsory redundancies in the university sector, and (2) the potential impact of any such redundancies on teaching and research.

My Lords, in begging leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper, I draw attention to my association with the University of Leicester, which is currently enacting a spate of compulsory redundancies among its academic staff.

My Lords, higher education providers are independent institutions, responsible for their own staffing issues, including how they structure themselves to deliver research and teaching priorities. Where it is necessary to reshape their activities, it is important that universities carefully consider the impact of job losses on staff and students and on the overall sustainability of teaching and research in this country. The Office for Students requires English higher education providers to maintain academic quality and standards.

The Government have led universities to compete for students by embarking on capital expenditures to create attractive amenities. To address the resulting financial difficulties, they have begun to sack their academic staff at a time when large numbers of European nationals are leaving academic posts as a consequence of Brexit. The long periods of training, the job insecurities and the penurious salaries are preventing native British people joining the academic profession. This will lead to the demise of our university sector. What remedies, if any, do the Government propose?

My Lords, we are all proud of our world-leading higher education sector, which is a tribute to those who work in it and have done over many years. We have four of the world’s top 10 universities and 17 of the top 100. Many universities are able to combine academic excellence with commercial success, so I do not quite recognise the dichotomy that the noble Viscount paints. However, we recognise the challenges of the past year and a half, during the pandemic, which is why, alongside access to the business support schemes available to all businesses, we brought forward more than £2 billion of tuition fee payments, provided £280 million of grant funding for research and established a loan scheme to cover up to 80% of universities’ income losses from international students for the current academic year.

My Lords, I draw attention to my declaration of interests, particularly as a teacher at the University of Buckingham. The proximate cause of these redundancies is a fall in income. Universities depend not just on fees but on rent and income from retail, bars and so on. Will my noble friend the Minister join me in congratulating those universities that have facilitated a safe return to in-person tuition? Will he also join me in urging particularly those in the college lecturers’ union who are resisting a return to campus to drop their opposition—in their own interest if not in that of the students?

My noble friend is right: it is important for universities to meet in person, and staff and students have shown themselves to be very flexible and adaptable during the challenging circumstances of the last year and a half. All students have been eligible to return to in-person teaching since 17 May, and we have encouraged universities to bring that about. How best to manage the return of face-to-face teaching is up to universities themselves, but all students are now eligible to receive their vaccination, and we encourage them to take that up to support their return to campuses, particularly as the autumn term approaches.

My Lords, I draw attention to the scale of this problem. My noble friend mentioned the University of Leicester, where, I understand, 26 academic redundancies are planned, as is the cessation of research in pure mathematics. I understand that 47 are to be made redundant at the Faculty of Health and Life Sciences at the University of Liverpool, 24 are to be made redundant at Aston University—along with the ending of courses in international business, modern languages, history and politics and English literature—and 11 are to be made redundant at the University of Hull, alongside the closure of the modern languages department. Surely the Minister ought to do more to intervene to end this unfolding cost-cutting catastrophe, which is damaging the morale and careers of students and staff, undermining research and destroying the enviable reputation of our universities?

My Lords, higher education providers are independent institutions responsible for their own decisions on staffing. Where it is necessary to reshape their activities, it is important that they carefully consider the impact of job losses on staff and students and on the overall sustainability of teaching and research. The Office for Students requires English HE providers to maintain academic quality and standards, and we have intervened by providing support to institutions during the past year and a half, in light of the Covid pandemic, as I outlined in response to the noble Viscount.

My Lords, redundancies may well be targeted at minority disciplines—yet these are very often highly critical to research, national security, well-being and knowledge. Can the Minister assure us that we shall not lose pure maths, as the noble Lord has just identified; modern languages, especially minority ones; and obscure arts and sciences, which may turn out to be vital? What assurances have universities given that they will not make redundancies in minority disciplines unless they are available at other universities?

I can only repeat that the decisions are for universities themselves, as autonomous and independent institutions. However, we have provided support: as well as that which I outlined earlier, we have provided funding through the Sustaining University Research Expertise fund, and the Government have committed to spending 2.4% of GDP on R&D by 2027—so we recognise the importance of the broad range of subjects that the noble Baroness outlined.

My Lords, is the Minister worried that the University of Leicester is closing down its research in pure maths—if only because STEM can hardly flourish without fundamental maths? More broadly, is there a risk that the combined effect of the pandemic and government cuts to research funding since Brexit might lead more universities to slash good research and pivot instead to taught courses that they think will bring in more money?

As I have just mentioned, the Government are seeking to increase R&D funding to 2.4% of GDP by 2027, and the decisions for the University of Leicester are for it to make. In light of the pandemic, we have provided the help that I have outlined to the University of Leicester and institutions across the country.

My Lords, we have a more strategic problem here: a universities business model that depends on, and is very sensitive to, overseas students, foreign research funding—not least from China—and the management of the rent rolls for the accommodation of students staying and studying away from home. Post Covid and post Brexit, all that seems to be in question. Is it not time that we had a strategic review of what our universities are capable of doing and what they are there to achieve?

My Lords, we are very proud of the attractiveness of UK higher education institutions to international students. We have an international students strategy that seeks to build on the successes of the past, informed by Sir Steve Smith, the former vice-chancellor of the University of Exeter. The financial stability of our world-leading university base has been a key aspect considered in all recent spending reviews. Foreign tuition and research income from outside the EU account for 15% and 1% of the total income of higher education institutions overall, so, while China may be an important contributor to non-EU foreign income, it would be wrong to characterise the sector as highly dependent on that country alone.

My Lords, I am sorry to add to the litany of academic loss, but I am sure that the Minister is aware of the plans to end the undergraduate teaching of archaeology at the University of Sheffield. This was ranked 39th in the world in the 2021 QS rankings. It has received expressions of support from around the world—including, just today, from Greece. Does the Minister agree that the study of archaeology is crucial to our understanding of the present and that it is crucial for us to maintain academic centres of excellence? Will the Government reconsider their plan to slash funding for the study of archaeology?

I know that the noble Baroness’s noble friend, the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, is an archaeology graduate. As a history graduate myself, I certainly recognise the importance of the study of the past. The Government have been providing help to institutions through the ways that I have outlined a number of times and through the SURE fund for research—so we are assisting universities, particularly in light of the challenging circumstances of the past few months.

My Lords, we have a dual funding system, and, while the Minister is right to say that the institutions are notionally independent, the truth is that they can do only what they are funded for, in what has effectively become a market economy. Have the Government considered one part of the dual funding system—the payments that will need to be made to support the redundancies and closures in relation to research—and has the Minister talked to UKRI about that? In respect of the AHRC, can the Minister confirm that the funding for the important creative clusters programme is secure?

During the last year, we provided support through the SURE fund to address the impact of the Covid pandemic. It will continue to be an important consideration in the next spending review and in our plans significantly to boost R&D funding. Through the Office for Students, we continue to monitor the financial stability of research in higher education, which is an important factor in the consideration of the balance of the dual funding that the noble Lord referred to.