London Metropolitan University is facing massive funding cuts after an audit by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) discovered that university management had been submitting inaccurate data.
Funding depends on student numbers but they have a very tight definition of a student: to qualify, students must have taken all the assessments in all their modules.
HEFCE discovered retrospectively that London Met had been submitting the number of students deemed capable of progressing, which is not the same thing as those who actually complete their course. It turned out that thousands of students didn't qualify for funding. As a result, London Met must pay back £38 million in overpaid grant and faces losing around £20 million a year.
Management's kneejerk response was to save money by cutting jobs. They proposed 330 full-time equivalent redundancies. We protested, not surprisingly. Since then things have got worse. Now they are looking to cut the equivalent of 550 full-time posts which, given how many people work for the university part time, could mean up to 800 people losing their jobs. This would be devastating - it affects about one in four of the staff.
We believe that those redundancies aren't necessary. There is money available that we could use to buy ourselves some time in order to develop a recovery plan. We believe they have a hidden agenda to change the nature of the university. They have a vision of fewer staff, worse staff to student ratios and more reliance on distance and internet-based learning. They're using the pretence of an economic crisis to drive this process through.
This does not surprise us: our management has always been hostile to staff. In the seven years that the university has existed, we have been longer in dispute than out of it! They seem to believe that attacking the unions and worsening staff conditions will produce results.
The exciting development now is that the vice-chancellor has resigned. This suggests that management finally accept that they were at fault and it leaves their strategy in tatters. Our demands are clear. They've got to pull back, drop the plan for redundancies and start consulting staff and students to devise a better recovery plan.
The number of students who have come out to join the campaign is amazing. Not surprisingly, they are worried about what will happen to their education. Students have really suffered in recent years as fees have risen and universities have cut back.
Now is not the time to be cutting staff. We should be making a big drive to widen participation. Demand for higher education (HE) is going to be rising during the recession and we should be offering access to HE to a wider number of people, not to fewer. If there was ever a time when people badly needed an accessible university, this is it, and London Met is a fantastic university for that.
Our students are incredibly diverse but they are also struggling. Living in London is incredibly expensive. Many of our students are mature students with families and other commitments. Many have to work long hours in order to survive and don't speak English as their first language. This means it may take them a bit longer to complete the course. They may need support and access to extra time or resources.
Using the same criteria to evaluate our success as students in other situations is unfair and cuts their chances of succeeding. Large numbers of our students, even those who are supposedly "not fundable", do get a degree but not necessarily in three years like most 18 year olds do. It's not easy, so their commitment is that much greater.
We're very worried because the point of HE is not just about passing exams and learning facts. I would go further and say that the most important element of HE is to give people tools to analyse, to think, to be creative, and that's what people will take with them for the rest of their lives. Those are precisely the elements that require discussion, and contact not just with teachers but also with students. The "e-learning" experience management would like to move towards seems to be undermining the point of going to university.
So our campaign against redundancies is one to save jobs and to protect working class education.
Amanda Sackur is on the national executive committee of UCU, the lecturers' union