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  • Writer's pictureThe Gaudie

"This is the bad place": reflections on what went wrong

"We stood still while the world moved around us. And that has cost us dearly."


By "Boy George"




In September 2023, Principal George Boyne (not the author of this piece) told the University of Aberdeen Senate that the university was facing a challenging financial period.


When he also said that he was confident that, with the ability to run a small deficit and some streamlining of services, the university would be back on a solid financial footing within 3 years, the university community was a little disconcerted but not concerned. 


After all, we had just experienced the twin shocks of Brexit and Covid, and a poorer-than-expected REF outcome also impacted our finances. To reiterate his confidence in the plan, he mentioned firmly that he had a ‘strong preference’ to avoid redundancies.  This comment was more of a jolt – we hadn’t thought this was being considered – but we were still unconcerned. He had just given a commitment that this wasn’t in his plan.

 

In October 2023, when Senior-Vice Principal Karl Leydecker, flanked by Director of People Debbie Dyker and Head of School for LLMVC Chris Collins, told that School that they had reached ‘the end of the road’ and that cuts were required, degree programmes would be closed and staff were at threat of redundancy, the university community reacted in shock. 


The financial circumstances of the institution had not been considered so severe – Professor Collins himself had only been told of the circumstances the day before, while Professor Nadia Kiwan, head of the Languages cluster that was most directly impacted, found out immediately prior to the meeting.

 

Predictably, a public relations disaster ensued. The threat to language programmes at the university met with local, national and international condemnation:

Staff and students rallied, alumni and ambassadors made representation, folk singers and foreign language speakers rebelled – even Scottish Government ministers registered their discontent. 


Senate reasserted its constitutional control over academic affairs and called on Court to pause the consultation on the future of languages.  Court heard recommendations from management, suggested staff in LLMVC be more actively engaged in the process, and extended the consultation to buy more time. 


The Senior Management Team refused to widen the membership of the Steering Group, but established several ‘working groups’ to make representations from LLMVC, including some affected students.  It seems likely, however, that those groups will propose very different solutions – and that, ultimately, the Steering Group’s initial proposal will be presented to Court in February.

 

When meetings were called across the university this week by Heads of School, it should have been no surprise to anyone that the news was not good. 


We don’t have meetings to celebrate success – we’re called to meet when the situation is dire.

Geosciences were told to cut 30% of their staff by summer 2025.  Shocking, but not surprising.  Other Schools are meeting across the week, but the messages will be similar.  Voluntary redundancies are open.  Protected conversations are suggested.  Those over 55 years old are encouraged to think about early retirement.

 

It’s hard not to be angry about all of this. Yes, university funding is a mess right now.  Yes, we’ve suffered through Brexit and Covid, and yes, we have a big funding gap because of our poor REF performance. 


But all of this could have been survived had we not put all of our eggs into the basket of ‘international postgraduate students’. The hostile environment created by Brexit and aided and abetted by a succession of anti-immigrant Home Secretaries has made the UK an unattractive place to live and study. 


So those eggs are broken. And the frustrating thing is that this was so foreseeable.  Economists preach diversifying portfolios to minimise risk – meaning any negative outcome is mitigated by minimal investment in each area. Social scientists – indeed, the average watcher of BBC Question Time – would be able to tell you the window for encouraging international students was closing.  And yet this was our sole strategy.

 

In 2018, the University Court recommended that we should not focus solely on this potentially volatile funding stream. This recommendation was rejected.


We didn’t diversify. We didn’t look to other funding sources. We don’t tap high-value alumni for donations, like we did when we built the Sir Duncan Rice Library.  Philanthropic income is incredibly limited. We sparingly host events at the newly redecorated Principal’s House. We didn’t recoup the money owed to us by the previous Principal.  We have (belatedly) started to think about commercialising campus in ways other universities have done. 


We stood still while the world moved around us. And that has cost us dearly.

 

Management seem keen to shift the focus to the autonomy of schools, emphasising that responsibility for revenue-raising ideas is theirs, and that Schools need to find their own ways out of these financial troubles. Fair’s fair – if Schools want autonomy in times of plenty they need to also take responsibility in tough times too. 


But Schools have also been encouraged to follow management’s flawed strategy of targeting international students. New programmes were geared towards that market.  New staff were employed to teach dwindling numbers of students. 


And at no point prior to September this year were any alarm bells sounded.  At no point did management consider diversifying revenue raising or deviating from this strategy. 

 

And when the house of cards crashed down, when the eggs in the basket were all broken, when the s*** hit the fan, management didn’t take responsibility for this failed strategy. 

They got Schools to take the rap for their economic mismanagement, hurting staff and students and trashing the university’s reputation in the process.

 

This is the bad place. 


And unfortunately, it looks like it will get worse before it gets better.  Because against a backdrop of catastrophic financial mismanagement, why on earth would you want to study here?

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