I heard this week, not for the first time and I am absolutely sure not for the last, of UK universities seeking volunteers for redundancy with the expressed hope of avoiding compulsory job losses.
These proposals are, ostensibly, driven by the expected loss of revenue associated with the down turn in student numbers, particularly from overseas, anticipated in the 2020/21 academic year (and probably beyond), a downturn immediately associated with the Covid-19 pandemic and its consequences. These proposals follow great responsive efforts by the staff, academic and not, to very rapidly shift teaching and examinations on line. To create capacity for that, at least in some instances, discretionary research activity (not externally funded) has been stopped.
The confronting scenario is uncomfortable. Falling student numbers will likely render, at least some accommodation redundant with associated lost income. Domestic students, promised (at least in the short term) online lectures and seminars will perhaps defer their attendance, or stay at home. Worse, the highest paying students (those from outside Europe) are the least likely to come. Their collective fees, which have in recent years underwritten the costs of research as well as some building programmes, will no longer be available.
The financial challenge occurs because many universities have invested heavily in their estate (student accommodation, building or re-building facilities, underwriting hotel occupancy for executive education students) in the expectation of ever-increasing numbers of ever increasingly well-funded (or ever more heavily indebted) students whose fees and rentals would repay the university investment and underwrite its financial obligations.
It is no surprise then that each University must seriously consider its financial position but in doing so they must be led by thoughtfulness and intelligence.
(Whoever muttered ‘first time for everything’ – be aware you are not on mute!)
I blogged in 2016 titled ‘Don’t reduce costs …..improve processes’, leaders of any university seeking to be intelligence led in the response to current challenges should read it:
Intelligence led thinking, thinking which is most likely to generate a sustainable long-term change, suggests that we should not arbitrarily seek voluntary redundancies from across the organisation but:
redesign the organisation and its processes to achieve the desired outcomes for its clientele;
eliminate from those processes all waste;
(including that which arises from inefficient or unnecessarily bureaucratic activities – which probably waste 15-20% of total resources, see both Beckford and Seddon in various publications);
reassess the scale of the problem;
select from the staff (academic, academic related, non-academic) those best fitted to achieve delivery of those outcomes;
sympathetically reduce staff numbers accordingly, recognising that staffing headcount changes arising from not recruiting to fill positions and the natural turnover of retirements, promotions and other changes will eliminate many of the roles in a reasonably short period.
If the need is more urgent than that then the necessity has been generated not by the ‘black swan’ event of the pandemic but by the decisions of previous years and the assumptions that have underpinned them.
There is a call to never let a crisis go to waste and it is certainly easier to make the case for change now than it was in 2019. As some institutions sit uncomfortably close to financial failure (note the demands for additional funding being made to government), rather than pursuing short term cost-saving fixes, university leadership teams need to become intelligence led and grasp the opportunity to re-invent higher education for a digital and digitally enabled world.