Sheffield Hallam plans to swap out most senior academics for lower-paid ‘teaching monkeys’
'I get the impression things change quite quickly. One minute it’s this and the next minute it’s that — there’s very little consistency'
Good morning members — and welcome to today’s Tribune.
Life is getting more expensive for all of us — including universities. A month ago, all 1,700 of Sheffield Hallam’s academics were offered the chance to apply for voluntary severance. This might sound about as enticing as choosing to get punched in the face — but whether or not enough people volunteer, Sheffield Hallam seems headed for a world of hurting. Internal documents show that more than 200 jobs will be cut if not enough people step down, largely (you’ll be unsurprised to hear) the most senior and highest paid roles. We tasked Victoria with finding out where cost cutting measures will be taken and what impact losing the university’s most experienced academics will have on Hallam as a whole.
Editor’s note: Victoria could never have reported this story without the difficult and frustrating work of gaining access to confidential documents. We always push ourselves to bring you work that goes beyond bland press releases to tell you what’s actually going on. Work like this is incredibly time consuming, and something we would be unable to carry out without the support of our paying subscribers. If there’s any moral to the piece below, it’s about the value of experience and talent. Want to pay for ours? Hit the button below.
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Sheffield Hallam plans to swap out most senior academics for lower-paid ‘teaching monkeys’
By Victoria Munro
“It really hit me about an hour ago.” I’m talking to a Sheffield Hallam lecturer who’s telling me about an unpleasant realisation. Namely, that one of the largest universities in this country could be on the verge of going bankrupt. “I’ve known that this is where it could be heading, but it really hit me in the face that this is becoming a serious possibility.” She’s asked to be quoted anonymously to protect her job — that is, fingers crossed she still has one in the next academic year.
In a statement provided to The Tribune, a spokesperson for Sheffield Hallam insisted such fears are entirely unfounded. The institution “remains one of the most popular universities in the country,” they said, boasting around 30,000 students. “We have put in place a series of measures to reduce costs in the short term, both to ensure that we remain in a healthy overall financial position, and to underpin our future plans.” Internal documents seen by The Tribune state Hallam has “already taken steps” to identify approximately £16 million of planned expenditure that can be scrapped in this academic year, although it will still “need to make further significant savings” in the year to come.
The first of these cost-cutting measures was announced about a month ago, when all 1,700 of the university’s academics were offered the chance to apply for voluntary severance. Since then, the university’s deputy vice-chancellor Professor David Shepherd has released a statement explaining that “overall” around 5% of staff — the equivalent of 85 jobs — will need to go, “although precise numbers may change”. If not enough academics agree to jump ship through the voluntary severance scheme (which stops accepting applications on 22nd January) then others will eventually have to be pushed.
Cutting 5% of staff at such a large institution may not immediately seem like a drastic measure. However, internal documents show that, in actuality, more than 200 jobs are on the chopping block, overwhelmingly the most senior and highest-paid positions. To replace them, Hallam plans to hire a horde of cheaper, less experienced staff — some of whom will be little more than “teaching monkeys,” as the lecturer put it, teaching material created by other academics with no chance to progress or conduct their own research.
For those whose jobs are in danger, many of whom still have years or even decades to go before they reach retirement age, the news is obviously devastating. “The job market out there is not great,” the lecturer noted. “If someone is not coming to the end of their career, they might struggle to find another job.” Despite this, she said some still seem to be contemplating applying for voluntary severance, on the grounds they’ll get a better pay-out than if they’re axed further down the line. “Some folk are genuinely quite scared and don’t know whether to just do it. The time scales for this feel quite calculated, they’ve not given people time to think and reflect on whether it could actually work for them.”
They are not the only ones who will suffer. More junior staff left behind will be expected to take on some of the responsibilities of those who have departed, such as line managing, without a promotion. In the internal documents, this is phrased an “opportunity” for those who “wish to enhance their career development,” although it will be mandatory for any future incoming staff at that level. Furthermore, students will no longer be able to benefit from studying under the university’s most senior academics. “They are people who have spent 10 or 20 years cultivating and learning and developing in their field,” the lecturer said. “If you remove those people then it changes the student experience.”
As far as Hallam’s leadership is concerned, they simply have no other option. “Like many universities across the country we are experiencing financial challenges,” Professor Shepherd wrote in his statement on 10th January, “due to a combination of increasing costs associated with inflation, rising energy and pension costs, and a flat undergraduate fee.” The university’s income was also “lower than forecast” this year, which many credit largely to a sharp drop in recruitment of international students, particularly from Nigeria, due to a change in visa laws. Since fees for international students are not capped in the same way fees for UK students are — a postgraduate degree in Health and Social Care at Hallam, for example, costs £4,712 a year for a UK student and £16,385 for those coming from abroad — universities often rely on this cohort to prop up other parts of their budget. “Several cost-saving measures have already been put in place this year,” he added, “but these alone are not sufficient to offset the shortfall and we need to make further savings.”
The Hallam branch of the University and College Union (UCU), however, is not convinced that all other avenues for saving money have been exhausted. For example, as we previously reported, Hallam has agreed to open a satellite campus in London — a decision many of its own staff find baffling. Perhaps money could be saved, in the long term if not the short term, by pulling out of this deal. Following a committee meeting yesterday, the branch announced on X (formerly Twitter) that its members had voted in favour of an indicative vote about industrial action, calling on Hallam’s leadership to postpone consulting on a restructure until after the voluntary severance scheme had ended. “We hope for meaningful negotiations soon,” they wrote. “The ball is in senior management's court.”
The internal briefings for Hallam staff show that the university is proposing to consolidate a number of its departments, whittling 16 down to just 10.