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  • Writer's pictureThe Gaudie

"There’s an iceberg directly in our path": Musings on the current crisis

Cutting your way to growth has never worked and won’t work here either.


By ‘George of the Jungle’


In late January, ‘Boy George’ gave a fairly damning (but accurate) summary of where we are now. A month on, things don’t feel much better.


Friends and family sympathise, and ask a very pointed question: "I things are that bad, why don’t you quit?"  And I suppose I could.


I could leave. I could retire early and live on an island, and take my restored pension with me.  Or I could take my talents and years of experience to the private sector for a while, where I might get paid a lot better. Or I could take the payoff and live off that for a while, and watch the world around me burn.


But I don’t want to. Despite everything, I love being here. I know lots of colleagues feel the same.  It’s not loyalty to institution – it’s loyalty to the community. 

I’m part of something that is much bigger than the disastrous short-term economic logic of the moment.


I’m not privy to the financial calculations that go into the long-term plans. I don’t know what Court or Senate or Senior Management have decided beyond the infrequent institution-wide announcements we are provided. I’ve lost track of what the deficit is projected to be. It seems to change frequently

Given the circumstances seem to have arisen out of a fairly bad projection of income and a forecast of better recruitment figures, I’m not clear why we have any more confidence in this set of numbers, but that’s probably a moot point. These numbers are what we have, and are what we are working with, and that means cuts. 


We’re told this is required. We’re told that running such a significant deficit is against our rules. There are bonds we hold, with covenants and statutory requirements we have to adhere to, and that Court is required to make decisions which reflect this circumstance.  Our biggest expense is staff costs, so staff are on the chopping block.  Reduce that expense, try to increase revenue, balance things over the short-term. Job done.


If this sounds a lot like ‘austerity politics’ that’s because it is. Cutting your way to growth has been discredited as an economic theory because it doesn’t work. Sure, you clear the deficit, balance the books and right the ship quickly.  But it stagnates growth. Cuts limit your capacity to grow because you are reducing the resources at your disposal to pursue revenue raising.  So while in the short-term it makes the balance sheet look much better, the longer term sustainability of in the institution is much less secure. 

Keynesian economics has spent the better part of the last century demonstrating why this doesn’t work: cuts during economic crises worsen rather than lessen the pain.


My understanding of the financial position is that there are several reasons why we’re in trouble, but the most significant are the reduction in international postgraduate recruitment and the reduction in funding as a result of a less-than-optimal REF outcome last time. 

I might be wrong, but that’s what I’ve taken from presentations and open sessions.  Given a lot of the circumstances around international students are beyond our control, there’s probably not a huge amount we can do to increase this revenue – maybe a bit more marketing, maybe making more offers (and crossing our fingers). But REF funding is performance-based and so is, to a greater extent, in our control.


I’ve never fully understood how REF works despite having contributed outputs. There are lots of elements, but from recent presentations, it seems like for the next REF we’re going to get more money this time around for 3-star and 4-star Impact Case Studies.  While 3-star and 4-star research outputs in the form of journal articles also provide good returns, I think they are around a tenth of the value of the Impact Case Studies.  So more emphasis on Impact is likely to be expected – that’s where the bigger returns will come.


Regardless, whether we are looking to produce excellent Impact Case Studies or Research Outputs we need a positive, thriving research environment. 

We need research-active staff that are fully focused on their research, not worrying about their jobs.  We need strength and depth in our Schools and departments, with people at all levels of their careers.  We need to create that space and time to allow excellent research to develop.  The more we cut in the short-term, the more we imperil this research and, ultimately, the research funding that comes with it.


This is exactly what Keynesianism talks about.  Yes we’re in a hole right now, but knee-jerk reactions and short-term thinking is only going to make that worse.  In our case, it makes the long-term planning – for research, for REF, for degree programmes – almost impossible.  We don’t know who is going to be here to deliver on any of these aspects. 

Colleagues in Modern Languages, Translation & Interpreting are seeing this most acutely right now.  Proposals they have recommended to Court seem to be dependent on the retention of most of their staff in order to deliver the enhancements in revenue they expect.  Cuts to staff will endanger those potential gains.


As ‘Boy George’ concluded a month ago, the reputational damage this has caused is likely to put students off coming here, and create a self-fulfilling prophecy on projected low students numbers, further putting the financial recovery at risk.  Further, excellent research-active staff will leave, take their severance and their publications elsewhere, and contribute to the REF at new institutions.


Is it too late to turn this boat around? I hope not, but I fear there’s an iceberg directly in our path and the helmsman is navigating with an out-of-date chart.


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