A drama in time: Dundee University prepares to fight cuts

Although they were not officially announced until an email was circulated on the 7th of December, rumours had already been circulating on social media about restructuring plans at the University of Dundee. The proposal itself did little to reassure the staff and students set to be affected by the changes that the university management had always intended to include them in the decision-making process. While the claims made by management in the email have already been dismantled and debunked by the Dundee branch of the UCU, the language used initially was an indication that the university management were acting in bad faith – pursuing the further commercialisation of higher education and cloaking budget cuts and redundancies in the language of social justice.

The first of the three money-saving “projects” is the vaguest of them all, but will be immediately recognisable to those with prior experience of austerity measures at corporate universities: “streamlining of degree programmes, reducing the costs of research, supporting commercial research activities, modernising staff management process and improvements in financial reporting”. The second, a consolidation of estate elements within the medical school including the transfer of research staff from Ninewells to the main campus, has also proved controversial with worries it could sever close ties between the two institutions and impact the high-quality medical research that takes place by virtue of on-site access to the hospital. The third action however is the one that has most enraged students and staff alike:

merging the Schools of Education & Social Work, Humanities and Social Sciences to create a unified interdisciplinary “Walker-Geddes School of Social Sciences & Humanities” to increase overall academic efficiency and deliver higher levels of academic excellence and reputation. This will be achieved via a number of proposed changes that include focusing research activity into a smaller number of thematically coherent divisions, reducing the number of degree programs and modules offered, increasing unregulated teaching income through market-led Taught Postgraduate growth and reductions in academic staff FTE numbers.

Interdisciplinary collaboration between these three schools already takes place regularly and while there is an argument to be made for pursuing closer connections between the three, this should be done with extra funding for facilitation and not as a money-saving austerity measure. The proposed name for the new institute is the first clear example of senior management using cynical PR tactics, cloaking regressive policies in the language of social justice and attempting to justify cuts with vague references to the history of the institution.

The proposed name for the new institute is the first clear example of senior management using cynical PR tactics, cloaking regressive policies in the language of social justice and attempting to justify cuts with vague references to the history of the institution.

Mary Lily Walker was a pioneering campaigner for social welfare and improving the lives of the city’s poor through her work with Dundee Social Union towards the end of the nineteenth-century. Patrick Geddes was an instigator of the first ‘Scots Renascence’, the founder of the town planning movement, and a man who’s vision far exceeds the current proposals – to implement the full extent of his plans for interdisciplinary collaboration all three departments would need millions of pounds in extra funding and the capacity to build ambitious structures like Edinburgh’s Outlook Tower or his recommendations for a National Institute of Geography.

All of Geddes’s work was informed by a prioritising of two interrelated contexts, the global and the local, neither of which can be claimed as priorities by a university administration that has already severely cut language programs and engages little with research on Dundee. Most of all, a “market-led” program of cuts would not have appealed to the socially-engaged Walker or the anti-capitalist Geddes, whose mantra “by leaves we live” and close friendship with Hugh MacDiarmid indicate his preference for a university driven by its local context rather than by the forces of capital. The name of this new “institute”, still a “working title”, represents nothing less than an insult to both of their memories. Luckily, the main thing that unites students within Humanities, Social Sciences, and Education & Social Work is the critical thinking required to see through these proposals.

Two keywords that run through the universities material on their plans are “excellence” and “reputation”, increasingly the only two things that university managements across the UK seem to care about. The word “excellence”, able to justify any cuts and job losses through some unbelievable heavy lifting, immediately recalls the REF and the ongoing process of commercialising higher education. Gary Hall has covered this process extensively in his 2016 book The Uberification of the University, a work that now reads as eerily prescient when viewed alongside the handling of the Covid-19 pandemic by university management internationally.

The shift towards online learning as a result of the lockdown has provided vice-chancellors with an opportunity to put this “innovation” into practice, but when we eventually return to our campuses we cannot allow it to be the new normal.

Hall warned then that increased “performance monitoring, rating and surveillance” within universities were “in the process of transforming us all into self-preoccupied, hypercompetitive, microentrepeneurs of our own selves and lives”. He quotes from a 2015 survey of vice-chancellors by the PA Consulting Group, identifying the key areas they sought to develop in order to “innovate” Higher Education: “uses of student data analytics for personalized services”, “uses of technology to transform learning experiences”, “anytime-anywhere learning” and “student-driven flexible study modes”. The shift towards online learning as a result of the lockdown has provided vice-chancellors with an opportunity to put this “innovation” into practice, but when we eventually return to our campuses we cannot allow it to be the new normal.

The position of PhD students is especially precarious and subject to pressure to commercialise research, forced to become “content producers” while more traditional outputs are not possible and archival research is limited. The UKRI’s guidance on the avoidance of PhD funding extensions is a worrying indication that this process will continue in 2021. I am reminded of a welcome meeting I attended for postgraduate research students where a dean publicly and proudly announced: “academia is like a pyramid scheme, congratulations on coming up a level”.

The second keyword, “reputation”, has been raised again and again in consultations, with the management claiming that the reputation of the three departments implicated in restructuring is responsible for a downturn in student numbers – ignoring the fact that various public scandals about the previous principal were plastered all over the local papers and that the Justice for Bamidele campaign based on the expulsion and deportation of a blind PhD student from Nigeria exposed the university as rife with inequality and discrimination. The management have done far more to tarnish the reputation of the university than its researchers. It is no surprise that future generations of educators, social workers, and scholars of the humanities & social sciences are deciding to apply to institutions that value their subjects and are not implicated in large-scale corruption.

Dundee, in conjunction with Abertay, is one of 45+ universities across the UK where students are planning a strike to secure rent reductions.

Universities across the UK have repeatedly manipulated their lockdown guidance to line up with the desires of student housing providers, recalling undergraduate students due to the apparent necessity of blended learning only to shift teaching fully online once vulnerable young people are holed-up and paying rent in poor-quality, expensive halls. This is why the campaign against restructuring and cuts is inseparable from the student rent strike movement: both are coordinated efforts to fight a university system that prioritises finances over a duty-of-care towards its students and staff.

Dundee, in conjunction with Abertay, is one of 45+ universities across the UK where students are planning a strike to secure rent reductions. This is the corporate side of the student housing crisis within Dundee but is just a part of the problem of housing in the city, with rising rents and poor conditions such as damp risking the health of residents and putting them into conflict with unaccountable letting agencies. Students at the University should also acknowledge their own role in the gentrification of Dundee city centre and the pushing out of long-term residents. The foundation of a Dundee branch of Living Rent is a welcome step towards confronting these issues.

The proposals for the Walker-Geddes Institute emerged from the University’s claims that they are running a deficit and set to be bankrupt by 2022 under current structures. These claims have been thoroughly debunked by the Dundee branch of the UCU in two documents that were circulated to students: “A tall tale of a fictitious bankruptcy and a 20m vanity project” and “What £16m deficit and who is responsible?”. While the UCU staff who have written these reports are accomplished economists, educators, and politics experts, the response of the university management has been to claim that they do not understand the figures – this is the arrogance of the managerial class, who believe that they are the only ones capable of analysing the university’s finances even when faced with criticism from scholars far more qualified than they are.

The UCU called for an emergency staff and student assembly when the university’s plans were made public, to take place on the 9th of December immediately before the first DUSA consultation between the management and the students. It was an energising and emotional event, with contributions from comrades at Manchester University who managed to achieve a historic 30% reduction in accommodation rent and striking staff from Brighton UCU acting against planned redundancies in the IT department. Although there were well over 100 attendees, there was an intimacy to the gathering and staff were able to express their disappointment with the university frankly and in a supportive and comradely environment.

The shift in atmosphere between the assembly and the consultation was stark. In all three consultations, students were belittled and confronted with shallow slogans instead of detailed discussions on the figures. Students were able to experience first-hand the hostility described by the UCU, as a wave of criticism came up against the management’s misguided claims that there is broad support for their plans. The UCU have detailed how they have been treated as “anti-vax, climate denial flat-earthers incapable of understanding modern theory” throughout this process, and management repeatedly used “sustainability” as a vague justification for the plans.

They would do well to remember that it took a five-year long campaign before they agreed to divest from fossil fuel companies and that they were only the 75th university to do so despite the prominence of environmental sciences within the institution. They also continue to use Barclays for banking purposes, despite the Divest Dundee campaign repeatedly calling for an end to this partnership considering Barclays’ long-standing ties to polluters. If the university was willing to act on its fund management with Barclays it could show that its environmental policies go beyond capitalist greenwashing. It would also be a significant showing of solidarity with Palestinian students and the Palestine Action society, given Dundee’s twinning relationship with Nablus and the prominence of Barclays in the BDS Movement (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions).

“Sustainability” is not a catch-all term to appease young people and shut down dissent, it is a process that demands further radical change in the way that the university operates and, again, investment instead of austerity measures. The same can be said for “decolonising the curriculum”, similarly weaponised to justify cuts and job losses in other universities across these islands. Restructuring academic departments will do little to make the university less racist or unsustainable, not while it continues to do business with Barclays and the Dalhousie Building retains its current name.

It is clear from looking at the university’s finances over the last five years that the “deficit” has appeared out of nowhere, and even if it does exist its causes are not as the management claim. The UCU see two possible explanations for the deficit: either “a level of incompetence that is deeply worrying” or the management “knowingly misrepresenting the financial position of the university in an attempt to create a £20m surplus to be presumably spent on yet another, as yet undisclosed, vanity project”. If the latter, it looks like the university is following the path of Dundee City Council and attempting to distract from inadequacies with spectacle and misdirection. To see how this approach has worked out for the city itself, one only has to look at the reports of Dundee topping the list of cities in the UK hit hardest by the pandemic for job losses and shop closures.

The elephant in the room when it comes to deficit discussion is the increase in the managerial layer, not addressed in the consultations despite being raised on numerous occasions. The UCU are rightfully demanding a scrapping of the current plans, with “a root and branch overhaul of the management structure, a return to a democratic structure and the reconnection with its civic role in the city of Dundee”. It is a shocking development that the Student Union and even individual societies and sports clubs are currently far more democratic than the structure of the university itself. This process has taken place slowly, with the move from faculties to colleges and eventually into schools – removing all consequences for managerial decision-making. As the Dundee UCU put it:

An unaccountable managerial layer was created which quickly sought to ensure its pay levels rose to reflect their own self-importance. Job titles changed to reflect their new reality of running a business rather than a university and expenditure on projects to enhance managerial control took priority over investment in student education and quality of provision.

This crisis of democracy has been accelerated by the pandemic. The claims of a deficit are tied to the fall in international student applications as a result of travel restrictions. The university, and the higher education sector in general, have relied upon these tuition fees for too long. Our international classmates greatly improve our student experience, but they are often exploited in order to maximise income. Meanwhile, the local students that are the bread and butter of the institution are dismissed and neglected due to the lack of income they generate. The university needs to change in order to “ensure that students from local communities are treated with dignity despite not being ‘profitable’ and that students from outside these communities are treated with dignity and not as ‘cash machines'”.

Students at all levels, across all departments, are refusing to accept the implementation of these plans. By sneaking out the news in the middle of global pandemic when students are unable to take direct action, the management think they can avoid protests and escalation. They are wrong. The student community, having witnessed the failings of the university being exposed by the lockdowns, are more energised than they have been since at least 2018’s occupation of the Tower Building. The minute restrictions are lifted, management should expect the full weight of anger and discontent with the current system.

We will not stop agitating for UCU’s alternative proposals and the cancellation of the Walker-Geddes Institute plans. UCU are demanding the management draw on “the wealth of experience, knowledge, and insight present within the university and in the local Dundee community”, and that Dundee community will stand alongside them. The only way UK higher education can be salvaged is through workplace democracy, the end of career managerialism, and the enrichment of the surrounding communities that they serve.

It remains to be seen how Dundee’s new principal and vice-chancellor Iain Gillespie will respond to the opposition to the restructuring plans, but it is perhaps significant that his previous institution Leicester University have come under fire this week for its own program of redundancies. UCU General Secretary Dr Jo Grady has said: “Axing jobs is wrong at the best of times, but for the University of Leicester to do so in the middle of this pandemic is particularly vindictive and self-defeating.” Staff and students in higher education institutions across these islands are standing up and demanding change in the way decisions are made.

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