Courses face axe under university cost-cutting

A LEADING Scottish university has drawn up plans to scrap or merge a raft of courses as part of moves to save £20 million over the next three years.

The controversial proposals from Glasgow University include the merging of history, archaeology and classics and the scrapping of several modern languages.

Other courses to face the axe include nursing, anthropology and social work, and the university is also seeking a review of its high-profile Centre for Drugs Misuse Research.

The university is also considering cutting back its provision of evening and weekend classes, which cater for up to 5000 adult learners a year.

The university’s Dumfries campus would also be hit, with courses in the liberal arts cut in favour of an expansion in environmental management.

The proposals from the university’s senior management group, which will make combined savings of some £3m, are part of a wider strategy to find £20m in savings by 2012-13.

Last year Anton Muscatelli, the university principal, warned that the institution could run out of money by 2013 if they took no action to address cuts in public funding.

In addition to course cuts, the university is seeking to find significant savings through a voluntary severance scheme across the institution as a whole.

And all non-academic departments such as estates, libraries, student support, human resources, finance and corporate communications will have to find cuts of between 11% and 15%.

If the cuts are approved by the university’s ruling court in May they are likely to lead to job losses, with officials refusing to rule out compulsory redundancies.

However, a university spokesman said all the proposals would be subject to full consultation if they were approved by the court later this month. No decision will be made until May.

The spokesman added: “The sector currently faces unprecedented financial pressures and this university is responding in a planned and strategic way to the cuts in public funding.

“Our approach is twofold: to generate more income, and to pursue cost savings.

“After a senior management group review of all aspects of our work, the university court will consider a consultation being carried out into a number of academic areas … identified within the context of the university meeting its strategic ambitions.”

However, the local branch of the UCU union, which represents lecturers, questioned the strategy and warned against compulsory redundancies.

David Anderson, president of the Glasgow University branch of the UCU, said: “We would question the motivation of the management

group in seeking to consult on these particular areas while the university is trying to reduce staff numbers across the campus through a voluntary severance scheme.

“Any consultation process must be based on more than simple economic information and must engage with all academic staff in the university as well take on board the views of students and the wider community that the university serves.

“Union members have demonstrated their willingness to defend colleagues threatened with redundancy in the past and would be prepared to do so again should the management group attempt compulsory redundancies.”

There was also an angry reaction from some of the course leaders and departments which are now under threat.

Staff at the Department of Adult and Continuing Education, which offers evening classes, said they believed they were now “fighting for survival”.

Lecturer Liam Kane said: “The university seems to think of us as some kind of an entertainment programme – that we run leisure classes.

“Their strategy appears to be all about internationalisation, foreign students and research, but we are providing real education to real people in challenging subjects.

“The students we are teaching are the people who have been paying their taxes to pay for the university in the first place.”

And a member of staff from the School of Modern Languages and Cultures said: “If provision is cut and there is no opportunity to combine several language and culture subjects then students will simply not come to this university.”

The ruling Court of Glasgow University will meet on February 16 to discuss the proposals, which, if agreed, will then go out for consultation.

Court will make a final decision at a subsequent meeting in May, after the proposals have been discussed by the university senate, which represents academics.

These are perilously uncertain times for Scottish universities.

Despite outrage at the increase in tuition fees to a ceiling of £9000 in England, the passing of the measure at Westminster gives English universities a basis on which to calculate future funding.

Uncertainty faces those in Scotland, however, until a new government is installed after May’s Holyrood election.

Professor Anton Muscatelli, Principal of Glasgow University, has calculated the funding gap at £360 million a year in Scottish higher education and has been one of the most urgent in warning that the disparity will result in our universities being unable to compete with those south of the Border.

As The Herald reveals today, his proposals to cut courses and some extra-mural activities to save £20m over the next three years are the first example of the sort of measures all higher education institutions will have to contemplate. No matter where the axe falls, it will cause pain for staff who lose their jobs and protest at the termination of courses.

That makes it imperative both teaching and research add to the breadth and depth of knowledge. Removing nursing and social work from Glasgow University’s prospectus, as proposed, will reduce the options for students who want to qualify for socially useful careers. However, social work already offers joint courses with Strathclyde University and the small numbers in nursing also have an alternative option in the city at Glasgow Caledonian University.

University courts will increasingly have to balance quality against quantity and decide what can be sacrificed to protect those disciplines most highly valued. One of Glasgow University’s aims is to reduce the range of courses to invest in areas of strength, such as engineering, medicine and cancer research. The merging of history, archaeaology and Classics and the scrapping of up to two modern languages and the replacement of liberal arts courses with environmental management at the Dumfries campus point to a shift from the arts to sciences.

There is some evidence the economic downturn is pushing student demand in the same direction. While a university education is about broadening minds as well as providing skills, the satisfaction in being able to put learning to a useful purpose through appropriate employment should be recognised.

The availability of courses across Scottish Universities provides valuable choice and different approaches. However, where universities in the same city are offering near identical courses and there is duplication, the benefits of amalgamation should be considered.

Extra-mural classes for non-students may be a luxury that can no longer be afforded but some could become sources of valuable income. If so, they should be harnessed to protect vital access classes for mature students and those from poorer backgrounds.

Globalisation demands that we have intellectual power houses extending the boundaries of knowledge. The challenge to nurture and develop these becomes more acute in straitened financial times. Tough decisions lie ahead for the sector, not just Glasgow University.