Staffing – the critical question

In the University of Leeds in Yorkshire, employees are to be balloted on strike action after the university announced that it was reducing staff numbers by 10 per cent as part of a cost saving plan. The University and College Union (UCU) has argued that the cut, if implemented, would move Leeds to the bottom of the university league table on its staff-student ration, which is a key criterion determining the overall rankings. The university has disputed this, pointing out that other universities are also reducing staffing.

Regardless of the merits or otherwise of the Leeds University plan, this story raises again a question that will ultimately affect all higher education institutions. Cuts in public expenditure are producing serious university budgets cuts in a number of countries, and as the main cost in higher education is is pay, it is clear that as cuts are introduced universities will have little choice but to reduce staffing levels. In Ireland we have the added feature that the so-called ’employment control framework’ is requiring institutions to cut staff numbers.

Assuming that this will remain a continuing process and that therefore the student to staff ration will continue to get worse, we need to have a clear strategy as to how we will cope with that. One response, at least in theory, would be to commit to raising additional external funds so as to be able to maintain current levels (or better). However, the financial climate globally makes it unlikely that such funds could be secured. Another option would be to accept the trend and to look instead at whether a model of teaching could be developed which is less staff-intensive but still capable of delivering excellent results.

Over the coming year a number of universities will face acute financial stress, and will certainly be tempted to look again at the salary bill. And perhaps there is a model of higher education out there that emphasises staffing levels less than we have been inclined to. But what is not desirable is that we accept the staffing reductions and absorb them, and then do everything we did before but with fewer staff; instead we could look at alternative teaching methods and examples elsewhere of good practice with successful results in terms of student achievement.

But we need to be clear that we are now fast approaching a situation in which the old assumptions about higher education are becoming unsustainable. Rather than tackling the traditional model by stealth we should have a plan for the future development of the sector in the context of necessary exchequer adjustments.

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3 Comments on “Staffing – the critical question”

  1. Vincent Says:

    ‘the old assumptions’ were shot to hell long ago. So what you are seeing at the moment is the logical progression of the widening of access. Something seen in the Arts and exemplified when the U of Wisconsin Madison televised lectures into multiple theatres. As to the one to one tutorial, these are seen only where numbers were so low that the Death-watch was clicking away, remember Hebrew at Queens.
    In some ways I’m sympathetic to Leeds, the Ratios have to be set at a level decided to be acceptable and Nailed at that point. But there cannot be this never ending push to attain Oxbridge level. Four to One seems reasonable for tutorials, but anything above ten, well I’ve attended lectures with less than fifteen.
    Over the weekend Eircom has extracted the digit so I was able to watch the Choir competition. These were all -those that I’ve seen- fee paying. They had a ratio of 15:1, a number that second level in my area could only dream. Given that the exchequer inputs are considerable. I think it is way past time that the state subsidises such education, all such education.

  2. Ros Says:

    Until the government sits down with the universities and begins honest and open discussions, we can only guess at what is in store. They harped on for long enough about the ‘knowledge economy’, but they seem to be very reluctant to engage with those who form a core element of that economy.

  3. Perry Share Says:

    The key issue here is how we teach and learn. As I’ve said here before, digital technology has fundamentally changed how T+L are conducted. We no longer live in a world where knowledge is scarce and the academic is the gatekeeper.

    So,what then is the task of the lecturer? This is evolving all around us, manifesting itself in everything from distance education to problem based learning to groupwork. (Some)lecturers and students are leading the changes from the ground up – the systems of resource allocation, management, reward and architecture are struggling to keep.

    A colleague remarked to me today how much time is spent by people rearranging the furniture in classrooms in order to facilitate collaborative learning. This used to be par for the course (indeed compulsory!) for sociologists, but it now takes place in all areas. Students work in groups in libraries or wherever, clustered around laptops that will give them access to limitless information. Others are sitting down with ‘real world’ partners to design and create projects with real outcomes, where ‘staff’ are co-researchers with students.

    How do you even begin to calculate this into staff-student ratios and hours allocations? There are real challenges here for academic management and the academic and students’ unions. Is it on the agenda?

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