The news of 140 proposed job cuts at Birkbeck, University of London, recently broke to widespread anger and sadness. A 199-year-old institution, it has been a model for left-leaning Higher Education for adults of all ages since its foundation as the Mechanics Institute in 1823. It teaches in the evenings so working people can study for a degree, broadening the reach of HE, and serving a diverse student body. It counts Britain’s first Labour Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald, and Fabian Sidney Webb, among its alumni. This history shows a robustness sufficient to outlast the expansion and collapse of the British Empire, two World Wars, and numerous financial crises. Despite the owl on its crest, Birkbeck is no fly-by-night institution.
But this robustness appears to be insufficient to withstand the college’s current mismanagement. At present Birkbeck has a £13 million deficit, due largely to the failures of a Senior Management Team who, while ventriloquising the language of the left, have been using the college to play the game of business. More troublingly, they have been playing it poorly.
Published accounts show that at least £35 million of free cash flow has been spent on the acquisition and refurbishment of new buildings since 2016, when the EU referendum signalled forthcoming volatility in the sector. Birkbeck was likely to be disproportionately exposed due to its diverse student make-up and its London location. This was clear signal that the college needed to exploit its agility as a smaller HE institution and develop a new base of applicants. Birkbeck has a record of innovation in this area, once running thousands of successful certificate courses that helped to introduce people to university study, and to begin a degree. (These were later priced out of existence by the college’s leadership.) Instead of changing quickly, drawing on the experience and knowledge of its staff, Birkbeck’s Senior Management Team began a costly programme of investment in physical infrastructure.
Historically, Birkbeck has hired large amounts of Bloomsbury teaching space in the evenings. In a period of expansion this constituted an uncontrolled expenditure, subject to rising rents by the owners. But in a period of uncertainty, where student numbers might fall, this became a competitive advantage. Strategic withdrawal was simple and quick; substantial ongoing overheads could be avoided.
However, in the face of uncertainty, this advantage was squandered by the college’s Senior Management Team. First they bought and refurbished a building on Euston Rd at a cost of £51 million, made greater by ongoing upkeep costs. This strategy was challenged by staff, but in 2019 academic representatives were removed from the estates committee so that no further dissent could be voiced. Following this a further building was purchased—the former University of London Student Union—without internal accountability. When the Covid-19 pandemic arrived, Birkbeck’s management had not only run down the college’s reserves, but committed to new estates at the moment nobody needed them. This transformed a structural advantage in an uncertain sector into vulnerability.
While challenging external conditions have painfully shown up the shortcomings of the management, this was a lesson that might have been learned already by more astute leaders. The failed venture of Birkbeck East, a programme of expansion into a second campus in Stratford, was an expensive warning. The college’s withdrawal was due to a lack of understanding of Birkbeck’s students’ needs, as the Vice Chancellor himself conceded on the eventual sale to the University of East London. Academic and support staff who worked in this project report that it was under-supported, and underpinned by no long-term strategy. Birkbeck’s management have not only failed to learn from their mistakes but repeated them at the very moment where the only certainty about the future was impending change.
In 2022 Birkbeck is crippled by this same group of managers. They are headed by a Vice Chancellor, David Latchman, who continues to draw an annual salary equivalent to nine jobs of the median Birkbeck employee, and who refuses to address the issue of salary sacrifice. He and his team have overseen a process where academic staff have been harangued into ever-quicker processing of applications, while simultaneously pursuing an internal austerity policy that has stripped back administrative services so that the college’s Registry currently have only 2.5 FTE staff covering the college’s admissions. During the past year suitable students have withdrawn their applications or been unable to enrol because there is insufficient staff capacity to process their paperwork effectively. Reduced recruitment is now cited as a reason for cuts to academic and administrative staff.
This restructuring, which proposes to cut the jobs of 84 academic staff and 56 administrative staff by next July, threatens the destruction of operating capacity in some of the country’s best academic departments. Half of the staff in Geography, Politics, Philosophy, and English, Theatre, and Creative Writing will be cut. The Department of Geography has been praised by Professor Joe Smith, Director of the Royal Geographical Society, not only for its world-leading research, but for its explicit fulfilment of Birkbeck’s mission, ‘providing an outstanding learning experience for a diverse and under-served student body’. And in 2021, English, Theatre, and Creative Writing, was especially successful in the government’s Research Excellence Framework, where it was ranked #2 in the country, ahead of every English department except Newcastle.
This assessment of research quality and impact is itself a management tool by which departments live and die; a high ranking is directly linked to millions of pounds of funding. But Birkbeck’s situation reveals to the whole sector an inconvenient truth: these expensive, laboursome processes will not save anyone. Those watching the events at Birkbeck are being shown the true nature of the hoops they are being driven to leap through.
Birkbeck’s position in the wider sector of Higher Education is unique because of its history, demographic, and mission, but its challenges are indicative of problems across UK universities. Rising inflation makes student fees worth less, and so recruitment growth has become ever more important. Overwork, exploitation of casualised labour, falling pay, and damage to pensions, show a successful sector made critically unstable. The sector’s distress has been clearly signalled by the turnout and results of the recent University and College Union ballot on these issues, which threatens the largest industrial unrest ever seen in British Higher Education.
The proposed restructure at Birkbeck is chaotic, opaque, and panicked. As departments meet their student recruitment targets and receive news of forthcoming ‘Quality Related’ funding, prospective redundancies rise with no explanation. Soon, functioning departments will be dismembered and bagged up into larger organisational units, whose unfortunate staff will be then held accountable for the college’s future. What courses will remain viable will be a function of which staff will have the nerve to hang on through this crisis. No research or evidence has been presented to staff for a coherent path to recovery and growth, only a repackaging exercise that promises managed decline. Tellingly, there is much talk of ‘vision’—a language that evokes hallucination rather than planning.
Talk of falling student numbers and irresistible market forces are the leadership’s preferred framing for the current malaise. But Birkbeck remains a distinctive place, with tailored teaching methods, a clear social mission of widening access to HE, an esteemed history, outstanding staff, and a place in the hearts of many. Its potential student body is not limited by age, and it is in the centre of the largest city on the continent. In order to return to success it is only in need of a management whose abilities reach the standards of the wider college—a college whose staff are unlikely to take this latest assault lying down.