By Eugene Smith
Durham University plans to lay off many of its administrative support staff within the next three years, leaving hundreds of employees fearing for their livelihoods, Palatinate has learned.
The cutbacks come as the University aims to reduce operating costs by “at least £15m” to allow for investment in new facilities, including developments at Maiden Castle and a new Centre for Teaching and Learning.
Professional support staff, who are distinct from the University’s academics, include such personnel as cleaners, caterers, porters and administrators.
The University made some of these employees redundant as part of a ‘Voluntary Severance Scheme’ in July 2017, but has since briefed staff to prepare for further streamlining. A second roll-out of the scheme, which involves workers volunteering for redundancy and receiving twelve months’ gross pay, is now slated for Spring 2018.
Though the University’s Durham DOES ‘People Transition Plan’ stresses a commitment to “minimising the need for compulsory redundancies wherever possible,” there has been no guarantee that involuntary dismissals will not take place. Under the sub-heading of avoiding compulsory redundancies, the same plan makes clear that “change is inevitable”.
When asked to confirm the number of staff likely to lose their jobs, a University spokesperson told Palatinate: “There are no numbers at this stage of the programme.” However, one senior source, who wished to remain anonymous, alleges the University has informally briefed staff it is likely to cut “around 480” of the roughly 2,800-strong workforce.
The proposals have left many staff dispirited, with the same source telling Palatinate morale is “absolutely horrendous”. Questions have also been raised as to whether the reduction in staff will negatively affect service levels for students, an issue made more pressing following the University’s recent 3.5% rise in college accommodation fees.
Roberta Blackman-Woods, the Labour MP for the City of Durham since 2005, told this newspaper in October her support for University expansion was conditional on “a pay-off for the local community,” and in particular the generation of “lots of opportunities for local employment”.
Contacted last week for her reaction to the staffing cuts, Dr Blackman-Woods’ office had not responded at the time of going to press.
Meanwhile, Dr Richard Lawrie, vice-master of University College and chair of the Durham and Easington Conservative Party, spoke to Palatinate in the latter capacity, saying: “It is clear that there is much concern about job security at the University in the local community. We need to be reassured that any changes occurring in one of the region’s major employers are done in a carefully-planned way that protects people’s employment.
“Talking to people in Durham, it is clear that many employees of the University are in reality very worried about their jobs, as well as issues such as pay and conditions. We need to make sure the University takes notice of this and acts to protect all its employees, and swiftly ends the current uncertainty on these issues.”
Durham University’s Chief Operating Officer, Jane Robinson, said: “The University Strategy, 2017-2027 aims to transform how the University works, to provide better services for students, staff and partners. A three-year change programme is underway to ensure better, more streamlined professional support services and enhanced career development opportunities for staff.
“The programme also aims to reduce operating costs by at least £15m over three years to enable the University to invest in developing and improving key areas such as teaching, research and accommodation facilities. Examples include the Centre for Teaching and Learning, which will be a hub for educational innovation, upgrading our sporting facilities at Maiden Castle and a new building for Maths and Computer Science.
“The savings are being managed in a planned and controlled way. As part of this approach, the University anticipates offering a Voluntary Severance Scheme from Spring 2018. The terms will remain the same as those offered to all Durham University staff earlier in 2017, with 12 months’ gross pay.
“The People Transition Plan [available online], produced with input from the Trade Unions, sets out the University’s approach, including minimising the need for compulsory redundancies wherever possible. University staff have been consulted on a proposed high level operating model and timescales have been produced in consultation with staff and Trade Unions.”
Photograph: Durham University