Tuesday, 21 February 2012

Uncharted Waters

It's that League Table time of year again. And it would seem that that top quartile aspiration for the University of Salford - Manchester in the standard league tables, is metaphorically speaking like the ever expanding outer reaches of the Universe with which is shares some important key letters - further away than ever. It appears that the University has once again dropped several places in the Guardian's University Tables 2012. Just to place this in some sort of context, the Guardian's tables show that in 2009-10 the university dropped seven places from 86 to 93, and in 2010-11 another seven places to 100. The current position of 109 is not good news. 

The bad news...

The University's own analysis of The Guardian's Good University 2012 table doesn't make for encouraging reading:

'In order to achieve the Strategic Plan aspiration of top quartile, the vast majority (around 80%) of subject level measures would need to score within their corresponding top quartile. At present this figure stands at 8%, with 34% of measures appearing within the corresponding bottom quartile.'(1)

The worser news...

Not wishing to heap opprobrium, which like dandelion milk and dog filth can leave a bitter aftertaste, according to the Times Good University Guide 2012, Salford has also slipped from its 88th place in 2011 to 91 in 2012. For the record, I'm no fan of league tables, standard or otherwise. And the reality is that if they ceased to exist tomorrow, Cambridge and Oxford would still be at the top of them. Nor do I root the cause of this slippage in the magnificent efforts of my former colleagues: the academic, non-academic and support staff. I take not the slightest pleasure in what is in my opinion, a lamentable state of affairs, the cause of which has to be located elsewhere. Yet any reasonable person can only conclude from these results, that a key part - probably the most important part - of the 'strategic plan' appears to be bearing little in the way of elevatorial fruit.

However, before I move on, I'd just like to put Ian Austin's, mind at rest, (Mr Austin sits on the Audit Committee of the University Council and acts for the University in his legal capacity in the libel claim lodged in the High Court University of Salford -v- Dr Gary Duke). It's highly unlikely that any of the writings of this Dr Gary Duke on blogs, or produced as satirical writings and exposes (known by some quaintly as 'pamphlets') since 2009 are responsible for this year's results (or any year for that matter). A cursory glance at the year-on-year results show that this general declination started long before a certain chap's quill was sharpened. Nor are the rumours correct that this bewhiskered ink-ed chap can influence the masses like a latter day Dr Joseph Goebbles without a limp.

Dr Duke: looks nothing like a former Nazi
propaganda minister
Some good news and then some more bad news...

Yet it's not all bad news. if we return to the Guardian's tables for a moment, they clearly show that Salford is in the top quartile, indeed in the top three at number three when it comes to the ratio of students to staff. Last year it was 18.7. This year it's 23.8. which suggests that that part of the 'strategic plan' which resulted in the laying off of over 200 members of staff in 2011 is certainly paying dividends.(2)

A chap called coincidence...

It's probably not a coincidence. Things rarely are. As a card carrying member of the Salford UCU branch, I receive internal bulletins from UCU Comms to members. As such I was informed yesterday there's quite a few more job losses (academic related) in the offing at Salford in March, which according to the UCU Committee and includes President Sheehy, could run into the hundreds and lead to '[e]xtensive course and module withdrawals'.(3) I tend to take this sort of news seriously as it wouldn't be distributed to UCU members willy-nilly (see below).(4)

A beginner's guide to improving the staff/student ratio

Now I'm no Einstein, but I do have a basic grasp of the mechanisms of reasoning and sums. And a couple of thoughts crossed my mind which regular readers of these 'dodgy' journalistic endeavours will know is nearly always a bad thing. They go something like this. If one reduces staff in absolute terms, and the number of students stays roughly the same, then relatively speaking, the staff/student ratio increases. Alternatively, one could reduce the number of students drastically - say by one half - whilst keeping the numbers of staff at the same levels and influence the staff/student ratio in terms of downwardness. It would mean that the institution would end up with a staff/student ratio akin to either Oxford or Cambridge instead of one akin to both top universities combined.

A reorganisation or two...

During my own time at Salford I witnessed one or two reorganisations: the shift from 'departments' to 'Schools', the changing of logos. More recently under the new 'Strategic Plan 2009/10 to 2017/18 has involved major changes with the loss of around 150 jobs in 2009 under project Headroom, over 200 in 2010-11 job losses (or more correctly role transformations), the 'transformation' from 'Schools' to 'Colleges', the opening of the flagship MediaCity campus and of course the ubiquitous changing of logos. I've done the sums and it would appear that the huge swathe of job losses since 2009 has done little to halt the general downward slide of the University in the league rankings. But to be fair, the new signs have only recently been erected.

This chap likes change too but doesn't have a Plan B

What if...?

As any specialist in hydraulics or indeed plate tectonics will tell you, there is a direct correlation between descent and pressure. I'll hazard a guess that in light of these results, there's one or two feeling the pressure at Salford. It would be interesting to know if anyone in the UCU branch leadership has pointed out to Martin Hall or his deputy Graves, as the loss of hundreds of staff hasn't managed to reverse the general trend downwards in the standard league tables, why should further job cuts do any better? Moreover, if the loss of hundreds of jobs appears to have increased the staff/student ratio, which speaking as a former student is hardly ideal, how then can the prospect of further job cuts decrease it?

And what if the new signage adorning the front of the Maxwell Hall fails to arrest this current freefall? Does Martin Hall have a Strategic Plan B?

Notes and References

(1) Sourced at http://www.planning.salford.ac.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0013/33016/20110519-Guardian-Analysis-Web.pdf
(2) The Times Good University Guide shows Salford increasing its staff/student ration from 18.5 in 2011 to 23.8 in 2012 sourced at http://www.university-list.net/uk/rank/univ-10001.htm
(3) UCU internal communications to Salford UCU members dated Monday 20th February 2012.

(4) Dated Monday 20th February 2012

'From the UCUS Committee to all members.

Important Membership Survey – Make Your Views Known

Dear members.

Sadly we find it necessary to communicate with you again and to seek your views. It appears likely that employer has plans afoot that will threaten hundreds of jobs in March 2012. We have regrettably seen a succession of smaller redundancy exercises over the past year, but what is about to be inflicted will mean jobs at risk leading to redundancies and we fear demotions on a scale not seen at this University for over a generation. This is associated with:

  • Extensive course and module withdrawals;
  • Replacing lecturing with on-line study as part of blended learning so that the VLE becomes a partial substitute for a lecturer rather than a support to face-to-face tuition;
  • Reduction of option choices;
  • Consolidation of delivery into a smaller number of larger, more generic modules.
In the firing line this time are academic-related members in Schools (and possibly some student-related and professional service roles in central functions, related to Phase 2 of Transformation) as well as academic members in more than one college. One of our Committee members today witnessed the announcement in a well attended College meeting in ‘Health’ of a ‘Phase 3’ due to take place in September 2012!.

We call upon the Employer to deny that there will be a large scale threat of redundancy leading to substantial job loss and workload intensification later this year and before the assessment period. We ask that they refute our claim that Academic Related, Administrative, and Academic staff will be affected across the University.

We want to ask whether members are prepared to take industrial action to resist these cuts before we are so depleted that we lose our ability to defend ourselves. Industrial action will mean you making a significant financial sacrifice, possibly for your own immediate benefit if you are in one of the affected areas, but possibly for the immediate benefit of other colleagues. If you are in an area not immediately affected, remember that successful resistance now means you reduce the risk that your area will be in line for job cuts in turn.

Please let the Committee know your views - this is a democratic branch that aims to defend its members in line with their wishes. As ever these surveys are confidential and anonymous, so please do not fear that anyone will know if or how you voted. It is with regret we need to ask you to let us know what action you are prepared to take to protect the livelihood of those who do not wish to leave employment other than by genuine voluntary means. The intention of a strong message of willingness to take action is to persuade the Employer to draw back from their plans and consider alternative strategies.

The survey can be accessed from this link: http://www.surveymonkey.com/s/UCUSRedundancyThreats. This link will be available off-campus, so members can complete the survey from their home machines if they prefer.

Thank you for letting us have your views at this time of grave threat to members' livelihoods.

Kind regards,

UCU Salford Committee.'

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